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?
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.