There are 22 beaked whale species in the world’s oceans, but they are probably the most elusive group of marine mammals out there. That’s because, reports Chelsea Whyte at New Scientist, the whales are deep divers that can spend up to 92 percent of their lives underwater. They usually surface for just a few moments, making sightings rare. One of the most elusive of the animals is the True’s beaked whale. But researchers report that the first recorded video of the whales swimming underwater is giving them invaluable insight into the creatures.
Whyte reports that a group of students and teachers on a field trip in the Azores, the southern tip of the whale's range in the North Atlantic, were exploring the water in an inflatable boat in 2013. “Suddenly this group of whales appear from nowhere and start to surround the boat,” Natacha Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist from the University of St Andrews, U.K., and the University of La Laguna on the Canary Islands, tells Whyte. The group was able to get out a waterproof GoPro camera and slip into the water to record the whales for 46 seconds. De Soto later confirmed that the footage was of True’s beaked whales, releasing the video along with other data on the species a new paper in the journal Peer J. “These are whales that very few people in the world have ever seen.”
According to a press release, the video footage is the first underwater footage ever taken of the species and the first images of a True’s calf. It also shows a new coloration pattern for the whales, which have a distinctive white spot on their heads. “The white on the melon, it’s sometimes called a white beanie because it looks like a beanie cap. ...There seems to be variation in that color pattern and sometimes the white extends much further to the anterior, into the beak, and around the eye,” Jay Barlow, a marine mammal biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tells Whyte. “Apparently we didn’t know as much as we thought we knew about the color and pattern.”
Sarah Kaplan at The Washington Post reports that True’s beaked whale was first identified in 1913 by Frederick William True, the first curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution. In over 100 years, however, there have only been a handful of live sightings of the whale, and most of what we know come from carcasses that have washed ashore. Kaplan explains that the whales have torpedo-shaped bodies with indentations on their sides where they can tuck their flippers, allowing them to dive to incredible depths.
According to the press release, De Soto hopes the video and data about color variation will help researchers be able to better identify True’s beaked whales at sea. She also hopes the paper will offer a baseline to help researchers begin to understand their distribution, population and potential impacts from humans. “Beaked whales are an incredible example of the adaptations of mammals to the ocean,” she tells Kaplan. “They overcome incredible physiological challenges to dive, but that means they are very sensitive to anything that changes or challenges the physiological balance.”
In fact, in recent years researchers have begun to make some headway in understanding beaked whales. In 2014 researchers tagged a Cuvier’s beaked whale, collecting 3,700 hours of data showing the whale dived to an average of .87 miles 1,100 times, with its longest dive lasting 2 hours and 17 minutes and reaching almost two miles below the surface. Last July, DNA analysis confirmed the existence of a new species of beaked whale known as the karasu, and in 2012 researchers got their first look at a spade-toothed beaked whale, Mesoplodon traversii, when it washed up on a beach in New Zealand. In fact, four species of beaked whales have been discovered in just the last two decades.
Reseachers are also learning about threats to the whales. “We know that some species of beaked whale are very vulnerable to navy sonar,” Barlow tells Whyte. “We want to monitor those species and determine if they’re being impacted. The only way to be able to do that is to tell them apart at sea.”
Augilar tells tells Kaplan that there is a possibility that the northern population and southern populations of True’s beaked whales may be different species, something that she hopes to investigate in a broader DNA study of the animals.