REVENGE OF THE MAHI, or, The Hapless Research Videographer
Perhaps their reputation is unjustified. I know of no documented case where a human has been attacked by one. Nevertheless, false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are intimidating creatures. Have a false killer swim up to you and smile, displaying its many sharp and gleaming teeth, and you may wonder what possessed you to enter the water in the first place. False killers are pack hunters and are capable of taking on any animal in the ocean, with the possible exception of true killer whales. Roughly the size, color and shape of pilot whales, false killers produce canary-like vocalizations to communicate with one another as well as sonar echolocation to locate prey. On many of the occasions that we have observed false killers, they have been consuming or harassing large fish. On at least one occasion they were inquisitive of, and possibly harassing, a humpback mother, calf and male escort.
On my first day back in the islands after a three week break, we run into a group of false killers off the south side of Lanai. They are leaping out of the water and not traveling, an indication that they are on prey. I enter the water to videotape what is happening. “No problem,” I think, as I swim toward a pair of false killers herding a large fish, “finally we’ll get footage of FK’s taking prey, to complement the other footage we have shot of them clicking us with their sonar and interacting with bottlenose dolphins.” It appears to me that the FK’s are playing with their fish, and that perhaps the larger FK is teaching something about hunting to its much smaller companion. The fish, a large male mahi mahi, is flashing his colors and turning wildly, trapped at the surface by the FK’s. He is in deep trouble and knows it.
But this mahi mahi is a very smart fish, and a lucky one. (This of course is obvious. Had he not been smart and lucky, he would have been consumed by his brothers long ago). The FK’s have let him live long enough so that he is still alive when the rare manfish swims towards him and his FK adversaries. It is thus that in the manfish the cunning mahi mahi sees both salvation from his desperate situation and a remarkable opportunity to turn the tables on the species which has cruelly hunted his kind with hook and spear for millenia. Poor manfish.
As I approach the trio, one of the FK’s peels off to make a brief pass by me, then resumes his harassment of the mahi. Our policy as research videographers is to stop approaching and float at the surface when we get within decent video range, which is what I do. I am now a short distance from the boat, twenty feet away from the hunt. Much to my good fortune the action moves nearer to me and I sense that some in-the-face action is coming. My attention alternates among each of the three animals. It is when I briefly take my eyes off of the mahi that he delivers his coupe de grace, a stunning maneuver that shifts the balance of power in this silly drama. I do not recognize how thoroughly I have been outwitted until it is too late.