Wholphin Facts

Wholphin Profile

Breeding intelligent animals in captivity is already a dubious practice, commonly more about generating income from gawkers than the advancement of science or conservation. 

But, much like the classic works of Mengele, some of the things that come out of Cetacean breeding are scientifically relevant, despite being entirely unconscionable. 

One that might fit this category is the Wholphin, a curious dolphin hybrid from Hawaii. The wholpin is the offspring of a female common bottlenose dolphin and a male false killer whale.

Wholphin Facts
Photo credit: Mark Interrante from Silicon Valley, USA (https://www.flickr.com/photos/16152133@N00/44480268/)

Wholphin Facts Overview

Habitat: Captivity
Location: Hawaii
Lifespan: Unknown
Size: Possibly around 5 meters (16ft) long
Weight: Not recorded
Colour: Black/grey
Diet: Fish
Predators: None
Top Speed: Not recorded
No. of Species: Hybrid
Conservation Status: Not listed

Captive bottlenose dolphins have a perpetual cheeky smile that makes it easy to forget they’re going entirely mad inside aquatic prisons; continually pestered by strangers to put on a show. 

False killer whales don’t have this fixed smirk, which is why they were presumably bred by for-profit organisations to look more like their presentable cousins and smile for the cameras. 

Wholphins are exceptionally rare because they are exceptionally unhealthy, but under-regulated corporations breed them as part of a freak show attraction, loosely disguised as science. 

Interesting Wholphin Facts

1. All dolphins are whales

But not all whales are dolphins! 

The wholphin is a cross between two species of whales, both in the same family, Delphinidae. 

If this is a little confusing, it might help to break it down. Whales and dolphins (and porpoises) are all Cetaceans. Most animals commonly called whales are on a branch of the cetacean lineage that has animals with hairy mouths for filtering krill, known as the Mysticeti, or baleen whales. 

They share a common ancestor with the toothed whales, who went off with a different strategy around 34 million years ago and mostly became predators. Toothed whales include the mighty sperm whale, the diminutive porpoise, and all the dolphins in between, as members of the parvorder Odontoceti

Within Odontoceti lies the dolphin family, Delphinidae, of which the killer whale (orca) is a member, as is the pseudo killer whale, the father of the wholphin. So they are whales but they’re also dolphins, like the other half of this hybrid, the bottlenose dolphin. 

This makes their hybridisation much less surprising than, say, that of a dolphin and a blue whale, separated by about as much time as you and a ring-tailed lemur. 

2. The size difference was a surprise

While genetically similar, there were practical hindrances around pairing the enormous, 2-ton Pseudorca with the far smaller bottlenose dolphin. 

This discrepancy is not entirely insurmountable – wealthy Americans in Southeast Asia conquer it all the time – but does make the even rather unlikely. 

This hybrid is only seen in captivity, and is likely a product of two species being kept in close proximity for too long. 


3. The first one died in Japan

This isn’t the first instance of a dolphin in Japan passing on before its time, but it was the first wholphin on record. This one was born in 1981, and lived for only 200 days, in Granvista’s Kamogawa Sea World Aquarium in Tokyo. 

Records of this brief existence are hard to find, presumably stored alongside reports from Nanking, somewhere in a box of things better left unmentioned. 

4. Hawaii did it better

But there have been healthy examples. Keikaimalu, a reportedly healthy wholphin is bringing in countless visitors to a Hawaiian aquarium. 

The official narrative here is that there was a surprise pairing between a false killer whale and dolphin, resulting in the entirely innocent and accidental production of a (coincidentally) crowd-pleasing attraction.

However it happened, in May 1985, a wholphin was born that would become the only one in the world at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. 

The organisation could therefore not be condemned for deliberately breeding unhealthy abominations for money, but at least they can still be criticised for their clumsiness, as this is an accident that apparently keeps happening. 

Even that same year, a stillborn wholphin was recorded, and five more deaths of wholphins less than a year old are on record up to 2007. A sixth wholphin died at under 8 years old. 1 2

5. Keikaimalu is fertile

But this wholphin is still alive, and its imprisonment is rationalised by Sea Life Park as a way to teach children about genetics. 

There are also deeper lessons available here, about greenwashing, the amorality of consumerist economies, and the relentless, destructive nature of homocentricism, but these aren’t as popular among the visitors. 

Meanwhile, she has given birth multiple times. One lived for nine years and the other, born when Kekaimalu was very young, died a few days after birth. 

Kawili Kai, her only surviving calf, performs with her at Sea Life Park. 

So, there is an apparent drop in fitness, even for the healthiest of wholphins, which goes some way to explaining why they don’t exist commonly in the wild. But there are some reports of similar hybrids that can be spotted on whale-watching trips. 

6. There might be some far happier hybrids in the ocean 

In August 2017, an animal said to be a hybrid between two different species, the rough-toothed whale and the melon-headed dolphin. 

This strange mix appears to have unique traits of its own and was at the time only the third confirmed instance of a wild-born Delphinidae hybrid. 

The fact that it was swimming around with its family suggests it wasn’t particularly unhealthy but it’s impossible to tell whether it would be able to spawn fertile offspring. 3 4

Wholphin Fact-File Summary

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Delphinidae 
Hybrid: Tursiops truncatus x Pseudorca crassidens

Fact Sources & References

  1. The Deaths Of Sea Life Park Hawaii”, Keiko Conservation.
  2. GloRandobo (2009), “Kekaimalu the Wholphin”, YouTube.
  3. (2018), “Hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin found”, The Sydney Morning Herald.
  4. (2018), “This Whale-Dolphin Hybrid Is Not a ‘Wholphin.’ Here’s Why.”, Live Science.