BBC Wildlife Magazine

Mys­ter­ies of the deep

Un­cov­er­ing the se­crets of beaked whales

- PHILIP HOARE is au­thor of RISINGTIDE­FALLINGSTA­R (Fourth Es­tate, £16.99). Hear it read as a Ra­dio 4 Book of the Week:­grammes/b006qftk

Like see­ing an ichthyosau­r caught on cam­era. That's what it felt like watch­ing re­cent footage of a True’s beaked whale filmed off the south coast of Pico Is­land in the Azores. It was the first time this cetacean has been filmed un­der­wa­ter. More than that, this vi­tal new ev­i­dence is lead­ing sci­en­tists to be­lieve that it may be a dis­crete North­ern Hemi­sphere species. If so, it will be the fifth new species of beaked whale dis­cov­ered in the past 25 years.

Nat­acha Aguiler de Soto, a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of St An­drews who iden­ti­fied the True’s beaked whale in the film and has been study­ing beaked whales for 15 years, was amazed when she made her dis­cov­ery. “Imag­ine! These are an­i­mals the size of ele­phants that we just can’t find. They’re a mys­tery.” Aguiler De Soto went on to ac­knowl­edge: “We don’t know how large the pop­u­la­tions of True’s beaked whale or any other beaked whale species are. So the pop­u­la­tions could de­cline and we would never know.”

Beaked whales are truly strange crea­tures. They are the deep­est-div­ing of all ma­rine mam­mals – a Cu­vier’s beaked whale set the record in 2014, at 2,992m – and spend over 90 per cent of their lives in the dark depths of the pelagic ocean. One good rea­son why they’re so dif­fi­cult to see, let alone study. Yet they con­sti­tute our sec­ond largest cetacean fam­ily, Ziphi­idae, af­ter oceanic dol­phins.


The six gen­era and 23 species of beaked whale that have been seen and de­scribed so far range from the rel­a­tively com­mon Cu­vier’s, Sowerby’s and bottlenose whales, to more ob­scure species such as Hec­tor’s, Shep­herd’s, Ste­j­neger’s and Long­man’s. They range in size from the huge north­ern bottlenose whale of the North At­lantic, which can reach 9.8m in length, to the pygmy beaked whale of the South Pa­cific at up to 3.7m.

As a fam­ily, beaked whales might be said to be very suc­cess­ful, be­ing present in ev­ery ocean. Yet it’s only with the ad­vent of dig­i­tal video and pho­tog­ra­phy that we have been able to iden­tify these enig­matic crea­tures in their own en­vi­ron­ment. Look up True’s beaked whale and in even the best ref­er­ence works you will find blurred im­ages of ‘prob­a­ble’ sight­ings. One re­spected cetacean field guide notes of True’s dis­tri­bu­tion: “Move­ments, if any, un­known. Pop­u­la­tion: per­haps nat­u­rally rare.”

Such ‘data de­fi­ciency’ is enough to lure any ‘whale­head’ on. But whose imag­i­na­tion wouldn’t be sparked by the no­tion of such rarely seen large an­i­mals in­hab­it­ing the oceans? They cer­tainly present ex­treme iden­ti­fi­ca­tion dif­fi­cul­ties – es­pe­cially be­cause the key di­ag­nos­tic is the shape of their prom­i­nent pairs of teeth, or tusks, which jut out of their lower jaws. In some species, these pro­tu­ber­ances can com­pletely grow over the beak, like a muz­zle. It’s only be­cause beaked whales suck in their main prey – squid – that they thrive with such an ap­par­ent hand­i­cap.

In Welling­ton, New Zealand – a beaked whale hotspot – I was lucky enough to meet An­ton van Helden, then cu­ra­tor of cetaceans at the Te Papa Mu­seum, who might be said to be the world ex­pert on beaked whale skele­tons. Van Helden took me into the

bow­els of the mu­seum. As­ton­ish­ingly, ar­rayed in row af­ter row on metal shelv­ing, were the bones of the rarest cetaceans known. Non­cha­lantly, van Helden pulled out a box of beaked whale teeth – a col­lec­tion the re­sult, it seemed, of a very bad day in the cetacean den­tist’s chair.


Even more amaz­ing was the cra­nium of a spade-toothed beaked whale, so-called be­cause its teeth re­sem­bled the sharp­ened spade used by whalers to flense (cut up) their catch. This scooped-out ski-slope of a skull, its lower jaw stud­ded with stumpy tusks, rep­re­sented, to date, one of only three spec­i­mens in the world. The species has still never been seen alive, although in 2010 a mother and calf beaked whale stranded in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty were iden­ti­fied as this spade-tooths.

Of all beaked whales, the bottlenose are per­haps the eas­i­est to iden­tify, from their prom­i­nent melons – the bul­bous fore­heads that con­tainn fatty oil now thought to func­tion as a bio-acous­ti­cal aid. Other species in the fam­ily are also sub­tly marked. Arnoux’s, Blainville’s and Cu­vier’s beaked whales bear pat­terns of scratches on their bod­ies, much like Risso’s dol­phins – a re­sult of tus­sles with squid and also maleto-male fight­ing.

A young Per­rin’s beaked whale – “still largely un­known at sea” – may have a pale cape around its dor­sal areaarea, a lit­tle like the white sad­dle on an orca. But this dis­ap­pears as it ma­tures and joins the other Ziphids in what seems to be a shape-shift­ing game of de­tec­tion for us hu­mans. We do not know their move­ments, their so­cial or cul­tural ar­range­ments, or where and when they breed. But then, we don’t even know the breed­ing grounds of the sec­ond-largest an­i­mal on Earth, the rel­a­tively com­mon fin whale.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen beaked whales off the Azores on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions. They are sub­lime crea­tures, suf­fused with a sense of their own mys­tery. At least, that’s how it seems to us. Last year, pho­tog­ra­pher An­drew Sut­ton and I watched a pod of Sowerby’s beaked whales off Pico’s black, basalt shores. These are very deep At­lantic wa­ters, up to 5km deep.

The whales ap­peared out of the cool, calm sea just af­ter dawn, the sil­ver light mak­ing their pres­ence dou­bly haunt­ing. It was only as

their sharp, primeval beaks broke the sur­face that they re­vealed them­selves. One fe­male was fol­lowed by its calf. They moved qui­etly across our bows; the only sound they made was the soft plo­sive ex­ha­la­tion of their blows, ready­ing them­selves for de­scents into the depths.

Beaked whales can sur­pass even sperm whales, which may make dives 2km deep. Their spin­dle-shaped bod­ies are per­fectly de­signed for the job; their pec­toral fins fit into ‘pock­ets’ on their sides, al­most like an air­craft’s un­der­car­riage. It is their abil­ity to for­age in the ben­thic depths that places these shy cetaceans far from us.

I’ve seen thou­sands of whales in 17 years of watch­ing and swim­ming with them, but this en­counter in the Azores was spe­cial, made more so by the whales’ rar­ity – and d the threats they y face. A Cu­vier’s be aked whale that stranded on n the Isle of Skye in 2014 had in ngested 4kg of plas­tic bags and other ru ub­bish. When a Cu­vier’s found beached in Nor­way in 2016 was dis­cov­ered to have swa al­lowed 30 plas­tic bags, it was nick­namedd Plasth­valen, ‘Plas­tic Whale’, and be­came an em­blem for pub­lic con­cern about plas­tic in the oceans.

Long seen as omens, whales re­tain their sym­bolic power, es­pe­cially when they come into con­tact with us. The fa­mous ‘Thames Whale’ may be the most filmed beaked whale ever. This north­ern bottlenose, a young fe­male, met her sad end in Fe­bru­ary 2006, prob­a­bly hav­ing taken a ‘wrong turn­ing’ into the shal­low North Sea and thence into the Thames, where she suc­cumbed to stress and de­hy­dra­tion. Whales get their fresh wa­ter from the food they eat, and this an­i­mal was un­able to feed on her usual diet of squid. She died on the river­banks, de­spite a res­cue ef­fort es­ti­mated to have cost over £1 mil­lion.


Beaked whales act as a barom­e­ter of the ef­fect we have on the ocean. Noise from hu­man ac­tiv­ity, un­known in the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, has a se­vere ef­fect on an­i­mals that rely on sound and their own nat­u­ral sonar. Of 136 beaked whale mass strand­ings re­ported from 1874 to 2004, 126 oc­curred be­tween 1950 and 2004, af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion of high-pow­ered naval sonar. The ev­i­dence is mount­ing up. In 1998, 14 Cu­vier’s whales stranded off Greece. This was ex­tremely un­usual: un­like other toothed whales, such as pi­lot whales, mass strand­ings are sel­dom seen in beaked whales, which live and dive in deep trenches far from shore. The in­ci­dent oc­curred within a few hours of the on­set of NATO mma­noeu­vres, con­duct­ing tri­aals of a sonic ar­ray. In a 2008 episode that may also be linked to hu­man ac­tiv­ity, no fewwer than 18 Cu­vier’s, four Soweerby’s and five uniden­ti­fied beakked whales – and 29 pi­lot whalles – stranded in the UK and Ir­re­land. Ne­crop­sies show that thhey all died around the same ttime. And in 2014, a se­ries of seveen Cu­vier’s whales stranded off Cr­rete in the Mediter­ranean dur­ring US naval ex­er­cises. OOther stud­ies of beaked whale strand­ings off Madeira that co­in­cided with mil­i­tary sonar ac­tiv­ity in­di­cate that the whales may have been scared into sur­fac­ing too quickly, thus suf­fer­ing nar­co­sis, or the bends. Yet for all their rar­ity, beaked whales are no strangers to the wa­ters around Great Bri­tain. Oddly enough, one of the best places to see them has been from the deck of pas­sen­ger fer­ries on routes from Portsmouth or Ply­mouth across the Bay of Bis­cay to Spain. I once saw a Cu­vier’s beaked whale breach off the bow of one of these ships. It was a stun­ning sight.


The weirdly marked, bird-like head of this species has earned it the al­ter­na­tive name of ‘goose-beaked whale’, con­jur­ing up me­dieval im­ages of bar­na­cle geese, sup­pos­edly born of bar­na­cles. The whale owes its usual nom­i­na­tion to the great French nat­u­ral­ist, Ge­orges Cu­vier. When he dis­cov­ered its skull in 1823, it looked so weird that he as­sumed it be­longed to an an­i­mal that had long been ex­tinct. It took 50 years for sci­en­tists to es­tab­lish that it was still alive and swim­ming in the sea.


In­trigu­ingly, re­cent re­search in­di­cates that the eerie qual­ity of these whales may owe some­thing to our own past. In the cul­ture of the Picts, who oc­cu­pied north­ern Scot­land be­tween the third and the ninth cen­turies BCE, there is a per­sis­tent im­age of the so-called Pic­tish Beast, a curled em­bry­onic shape of­ten found in stone carv­ings (and pos­si­bly re­pro­duced in their tat­toos). Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have de­bated the mean­ing of this crea­ture. Some think it is an in­ven­tion of Pic­tish imag­i­na­tion, which of­ten por­trayed men with bird’s heads and other chimera. But oth­ers have seen the shape of a cetacean in its curves.

Cer­tainly, bottlenose dol­phins would have been fa­mil­iar to the coastal-dwelling Picts. A com­mu­nity of bot­tlenoses still swim close to the shores of Spey Bay and the Mo­ray Firth, and are sub­jects of a long-stand­ing study by the char­ity Whale and Dol­phin Con­ser­va­tion. Like us, our an­ces­tors must have watched them too. In­terred in a Pic­tish burial hoard dis­cov­ered on St Ninian’s Isle in 1958, among the pre­cious sil­ver bowls and other ob­jects, was the jaw­bone of a por­poise. Its pres­ence seems to in­di­cate a rit­ual im­por­tance for cetaceans among the Picts.

His­to­ri­ans Colin Macleod and Ben Wil­son sug­gest that the Pic­tish Beast was in­spired by a stranded Sowerby’s beaked whale. They base their the­ory on per­ceived sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the Beast’s ec­cen­tric snout and the Sowerby’s equally strange beak. An­other his­to­rian, Craig Cess­ford, pro­poses that cetaceans had an even ear­lier sig­nif­i­cance for pre-Pic­tish peo­ple in Scot­land, and that our fugitive re­la­tion­ship with these cryp­tic crea­tures ex­tends yet fur­ther back into pre­his­tory.

It is a pow­er­ful no­tion, to think of this rare an­i­mal em­bla­zoned on a tribesman’s arm, its sin­u­ous shape still re­mem­bered in stone a mil­len­nium later. And if the beaked whales seem like em­blems of the ocean’s oth­er­ness, it is salu­tary to think that we barely know any more about them than our tat­tooed an­ces­tors did, one thou­sand years ago.


 ??  ?? Blainville’s beaked whales per­form short dive se­quences at 15–20 sec­ond in­ter­vals, fol­lowed by long dives of up to 54 min­utes. They hunt squid, some fish and crus­taceans.
Blainville’s beaked whales per­form short dive se­quences at 15–20 sec­ond in­ter­vals, fol­lowed by long dives of up to 54 min­utes. They hunt squid, some fish and crus­taceans.
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 ??  ?? Mak­ing waves: a Gray’s beaked whale breaks the sur­face of the Sco­tia Sea, South­ern At­lantic Ocean. Heavy load: the lost north­ern bottlenose whale is lifted from the River Thames in 2006.
Mak­ing waves: a Gray’s beaked whale breaks the sur­face of the Sco­tia Sea, South­ern At­lantic Ocean. Heavy load: the lost north­ern bottlenose whale is lifted from the River Thames in 2006.
 ??  ?? Un­like these two, beaked whales usu­ally spend most of their time in deep wa­ter so are sel­dom seen and dif­fi­cult to study. The scratches on this Cu­vier’s beaked whale are most likely from bat­tling squid or fight­ing a male.
Un­like these two, beaked whales usu­ally spend most of their time in deep wa­ter so are sel­dom seen and dif­fi­cult to study. The scratches on this Cu­vier’s beaked whale are most likely from bat­tling squid or fight­ing a male.
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? North­ern bottlenose whales can be eas­ily iden­ti­fied by their bul­bous ‘melons’.
North­ern bottlenose whales can be eas­ily iden­ti­fied by their bul­bous ‘melons’.
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