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Home / News / General / Hawaii’s cetaceans

Hawaii’s cetaceans

By: Denver Leaman

Pygmy Killer Whale

Pygmy Killer Whale (Feresa attenuata)
Suborder: Odonticeti Family: Delphinidae
Occurs in Hawaiian waters. Actually a dolphin.

A small group approaches the boat about three miles from shore

As we approached they appeared to be rather shy but we were patient

As they got closer still more detail was visible

One individual zoomed under the boat revealing its white lips

Other known names:

Slender blackfish, Slender pilot whale

Identity Keys to use in the field:

Robust body, Small size, Bulbous forehead, no teeth visible, White "lips", White chin, Flippers, flukes and fin are dark, Long, broad, spatulate flippers, Grey- brown in color, Dark area around the dorsal fin, Tall dorsal fin, White scratches and scars, Fast active swimmer, Highly acrobatic, Shows little of itself at surface, Difficult to approach, Normally avoids boats, Prefers deep water, Normally in small groups.

General description and habits:

Pygmy killer whales are about the same size as many dolphins. They have robust bodies, with a dark cape along their back. They have lighter blue- black, or brownish gray sides, and a large white patch on their belly that is split in half by a deep groove. Sometimes the body is scarred. This may be because of struggles with large prey such as dolphins or from fights with other pygmy killer whales. They have rounded foreheads without a beak. Some animals may have a white chin under their lower lip. The dorsal fin is tall and slightly pointed with flippers that are long with rounded tips. The upper jaw has between 16 and 24 sharply pointed teeth, and the lower jaw has between 20 and 26. When newborn these whales are 80cm long. Adults grow to be between 2.1 and 2.6 meters in length and 110-170 kg. Pygmy killer whales usually travel in small groups of under 50 animals. They tend to avoid boats and are usually difficult to approach. They rarely bow ride, spy hop or breach. They are frequently seen resting- an action called logging. This is when a group floats at the surface of the water all facing in the same direction. When escaping from danger they swim fast and leap clear out of the water, bunching together in a group. Normally, each animal swims next to the other to form a line of animals. When captured for marine aquariums, these whales can be aggressive toward people and other whales.


Fish, squid, octopus, sea lions, seals, and other marine mammals.


The Pygmy killer whales live in deep warm waters all around the world. They share almost the same habitat and range as the Melon-headed whale, and are mostly sighted around Hawaii and parts of Japan. They rarely appear above the ocean surface, and live in deep waters far from shore.

Population estimates:



Entanglement in fishing nets.

Interesting facts:

The sound of Pygmy killer whales growling can be heard above the surface of the water. Pygmy killer whales are one of the most aggressive cetaceans. These animals are prone to stranding.

Hawaii’s cetaceans
  • Humpback whales
  • Striped Dolphin
  • Spinner Dolphin
  • Baird’s Beaked Whale
  • Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin
  • Blainville's Beaked Whale
  • Bryde's Whale
  • Cuvier's Beaked Whale
  • Dwarf Sperm Whale
  • False Killer Whale
  • Fin Whale
  • Killer Whale
  • Melon-headed Whale
  • Minke Whale
  • Northern Right Whale
  • Pygmy Killer Whale
  • Pygmy Sperm Whale
  • Risso's Dolphin
  • Rough-toothed Dolphin
  • Short-finned Pilot Whale
  • Sperm Whale
  • Spotted Dolphin



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