Endangered false killer whale stranded on Big Island died of natural causes

November 17, 2015

Teams work on a necropsy

A necropsy examination was done at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, on an adult female false killer whale that stranded at South Point on November 7, 2015.
Photo/NOAA Permit #932-1905

Honolulu, Hawaii — The first phase of results are in from an investigation regarding the death of an endangered false killer found along the shore at Ka Lae (South Point), Hawaii Island, in early November 2015.

The examination, led by Hawai‘i Pacific University, concluded that abnormal blood clot formations in the heart and lungs of the whale caused sudden breathing difficulties that likely resulted in its death. Many conditions may have made the whale susceptible to the abnormal blood clot formations, including infections, chronic heart disease or even cancer.

An unhealed open wound examined during the necropsy was first documented in 2004 by Cascadia Research Collective, and suggests that the whale had a weakened immune system.

“The next phase of the investigation will aim to determine if disease was an underlying cause of death, as well as establishing the whale’s age and measuring contaminant levels,” said Kristi West, Ph.D., head of the HPU stranding program. “Study of this animal helps us to better understand threats facing Hawaii’s endangered false killer whales.”

This stranding is rare because only three Hawaiian false killer whales have been reported stranded in the past 18 years. A recent case was an adult male stranded at South Point in 2013 that had five fishing hooks in its stomach.

The new investigation is being launched by HPU, in partnership with the University of Hawaii, Cascadia Research Collective, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Local resident Rodney Kuahiwinui sighted the dead whale on the shore and along with family and friends, was crucial to the recovery effort. “We see whales traveling in the area and understand that they are important to future generations,” said Kuahiwinui.

John Kahiapo, of DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources, coordinated the recovery of the whale and Transair, one of Hawaii’s largest cargo airlines, transported the 1,300-pound animal by air to Oahu. The immediate recovery and transport of the whale made a cause of death determination possible.

The death of an adult female hurts recovery efforts for the critically endangered Hawaiian false killer whale population where less than 200 individuals remain. This female was first documented in 2004 and re-sighted seven times near Oahu and the Big Island prior to her death.

DLNR was recently awarded nearly $1.2 million dollars by the federal government to support the conservation and recovery of Hawaii’s endangered false killer whales. HPU is part of this effort.

For more information on false killer whales in Hawaii, see