Tourists Spot ‘Incredibly Rare’ Whales Off California Coast

Cuvier’s beaked whales can hold their breath for hours and don’t spend much time at the surface, making them mysterious—and a treat to see

Bird flying overhead, back of whale surfacing above the water
Sightseers spotted the rarely seen creatures on a Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat tour off the coast of California. Johanna Domise / Monterey Bay Whale Watch via Facebook

Cuvier’s beaked whales are mysterious creatures that can dive deep and spend several hours underwater at a time. They rarely surface—and when they do, it’s just for a few minutes to catch their breath before plunging back down.

That’s why a group of whale watchers were shocked to see an entire pod of the elusive whales (Ziphius cavirostris) while taking a tour off the coast of California last week. On the morning of July 5, the sightseers were on a Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat about ten miles northwest of Monterey Harbor, when they spotted four to six Cuvier’s beaked whales swimming and diving.

A tour guide identified the cetaceans by their tannish-brown coloring and white spots.

An estimated 5,000 Cuvier’s beaked whales live along the West Coast of North America, and Monterey Bay is one of the few places near the shore deep enough for them to thrive. That’s because the Monterey Canyon, which is 2.5 miles deep at its lowest point, bisects the bay, as Karin Forney, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center, tells SFGate’s Amy Graff.

Even so, sightings of these whales in the bay are few and far between. In her 35 years as a marine biologist and tour operator, Nancy Black, owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, has only ever spotted them about three times, she tells the San Francisco Chronicle’s Laya Neelakandan.

“It’s always exciting to see something different that you don’t see very often,” she adds to the publication.

First described in 1823, Cuvier’s beaked whales can grow to between 15 and 23 feet long and can weigh between 4,000 to 6,800 pounds, per NOAA. They live in oceans throughout the world but primarily inhabit tropical, subtropical and temperate areas—and they especially like to hang out in the deep waters near continental slopes and other submerged landscape features, like seamounts and canyons.

Cuvier’s beaked whales typically eat squids, octopuses and other cephalopods, though they’ll occasionally nosh on crustaceans and fish. Special grooves in their throats help the whales draw their desired prey into their mouths, much like a vacuum.

To feed, the creatures plunge deep beneath the surface, spending upwards of an hour at a time under the water. They regularly swim at depths below 3,000 feet, but the deepest recorded dive was just over 9,800 feet—and the longest known dive lasted 222 minutes, or more than three and a half hours.

Cuvier’s beaked whales are so elusive that scientists don’t have a good understanding of how they are distributed, and it’s not clear whether or when they migrate. Researchers have more questions than answers about these cetaceans.

“When you’re looking for an animal that can hold its breath for the duration of a feature-length movie, it’s a matter of odds and time on the water,” Greg Schorr, a researcher with Marine Ecology and Telemetry Research, a nonprofit conservation group, said to the New York Times’ Karen Weintraub in 2019.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as a species of “least concern,” however, the total number of Cuvier’s beaked whales around the world is unknown. But according to NOAA, the creatures face myriad threats, from accidentally becoming ensnared in fishing gear to colliding with boats to intentional hunting. They’re also likely sensitive to the increasingly frequent and loud underwater noises humans make, since they use sound to find their way around, talk to one another and detect food.

In the United States, it is illegal to hunt, kill, injure or otherwise bother Cuvier’s beaked whales, as well as all other marine mammal species, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The cetaceans also face natural threats from predators like orcas, which have been spotted attacking the whales—and even taking down great white sharks.

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