Caught On Film For The First Time: One Of The World’s Rarest Whales

2017-03-10T13:09:39+00:00 March 10, 2017|
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Natacha Aguilar de Soto has studied beaked whales for 15 years. She has spent dozens of months at sea, floating above the deepest parts of the ocean, straining her eyes and ears to detect whatever might be moving in the fathoms below. She rarely finds anything. 

(From The Washington Post/by Sarah Kaplan) — Beaked whales — a family of 22 cetacean species characterized by dolphinlike noses and missile-shaped bodies — are some of the most elusive animals on Earth. They dive deeper and longer than any other marine mammal and spend an estimated 92 percent of their lives far beneath the ocean surface. One species, the True’s beaked whale, is so rare that only a handful of people have ever seen it alive.

“Imagine,” Aguilar de Soto said, “these are animals the size of elephants that we just can’t find. They’re a mystery.”

Then, in 2013, a colleague sent her a 46-second video clip that had been taken by science students on an educational trip in the Azores. Greenish white shapes drift in a brilliant blue sea. The camera zooms closer and the shapes come into focus: three oblong sea creatures are undulating lazily through the water. They point their pale faces up toward the sky, just barely cresting above the surface, then angle back down again. Too soon, the animals swim out of view, and the videographer pulls the camera back out of the water. 

“When I saw the video, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands. “I thought, ‘My god, these are True’s beaked whales.’ ”

The video — the first ever taken of True’s beaked whales in the wild — was released Tuesday along with of a detailed new study in the journal PeerJ that aims to demystify the enigmatic animals. The paper combined data from strandings and sightings with genetic analyses of individual whales from both the northern and southern hemispheres. Aguilar de Soto, the lead author, says it’s one of the most comprehensive surveys of scientific knowledge about True’s beaked whales.

The research could prove vital to efforts to protect the species. Little is known about the appearance and behavior of True’s beaked whales and its cousins, making these species difficult to identify even for beaked whale experts. Without an accurate, data-backed methodology for identifying the whales, it’s impossible to count them.

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