The teeth in the jaw of a beaked whale tell all

Af­ter more than 50 ferry cross­ings, would John Horsfall fi­nally see the most elu­sive of beaked whales?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Our World -

A pas­sion in­spired by a sight­ing of baleen whales in the Bay of Bis­cay 20 years ago – cetacean pho­tog­ra­phy – can of­ten be the only chance to make a pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of an an­i­mal that grants sec­onds of vis­i­bil­ity. I have since crossed the Bay 50 or so times, and there is a sur­pris­ing di­ver­sity of whales and dol­phins recorded here, in­clud­ing a group that are are very tricky to iden­tify – the beaked whales.

These small-to-medium whales spend lit­tle time on the sur­face, ex­hibit un­cer­tain geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tions, and field guide il­lus­tra­tions of them are close to ed­u­cated guesses. Along with lo­ca­tion and ap­pear­ance, the po­si­tion of the (usu­ally) two small teeth in the males pro­vides the only known cer­tainty of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The most chal­leng­ing species to see in North At­lantic wa­ters is the True’s beaked whale. There have been just three pos­si­ble live sight­ings in the North At­lantic up un­til 2004 – a to­tal re­cently aug­mented with a hand­ful of observations from the Ca­nary Is­lands and the Azores.

On this trip we were three hours from Spain and a Cu­vier’s beaked whale cruised qui­etly by – it was look­ing promis­ing. Thirty min­utes later and a whale­watch­ing group on the top deck re­ported two pos­si­ble Sowerby’s beaked whales at a dis­tance – even bet­ter.

And then it hap­pened: with a colos­sal crash a whale emerged in the ship’s wake and hurled it­self into the swell. You never get the first breach on cam­era but I was ready as a sec­ond whale emerged in a graceful arc and smashed its two-tonne body back into the ocean. Surely it couldn’t go on – beaked whales never give you such an op­por­tu­nity – but it did, for a full minute; more than 50 pho­to­graphic frames.

As they re­ceded into the ocean haze and my heart calmed down, my thoughts ac­cel­er­ated – they hadn’t looked any­thing like Cu­vier’s, but would the pho­to­graphs take me any fur­ther into the tax­o­nomic nightmare or would I be left again with yet an­other grey, generic shape? The joy of dig­i­tal: I scrolled down a few frames – heart in mouth – and there were two glis­ten­ing white teeth at the tip of the pro­trud­ing lower jaw of a True’s beaked whale.

And then it hap­pened: with a colos­sal crash a whale emerged in the ship’s wake.

To iden­tify a beaked whale you have to be quick. They spend lit­tle time at the sur­face.

DR JOHN HORSFALL is a bi­ol­o­gist and over­all win­ner of Wildlife Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year in 1982.

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