Beaked Whales

April 16, 2017
By Damond Benningfield
Episode:

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A Blainville's beaked whale. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

If whales had their own Olympic games, one of the events might be deep diving. And the gold medal would go to a species known as Cuvier’s whale. A few years ago, one member of the species was tracked to a depth of more than a mile, and it stayed underwater for more than two hours. That’s a record for any marine mammal.

Cuvier’s whale is one of more than 20 known species of “beaked” whales, known for snouts that resemble those of bottlenose dolphins. Beaked whales are some of the most poorly known creatures in the oceans. That’s because almost all of them stay in deep waters. They remain submerged for a long time, so they’re seldom seen. In fact, several species are known from only a few individuals, some of which were seen only after they stranded themselves on the beach. And even when scientists do see them, it can be tough to tell one species from another -- there’s quite a resemblance between them. One species that stands out is the Baird’s whale, because it’s the biggest of them all. An adult can top out at 40 feet or longer, and can weigh more than 12 tons.

One threat that beaked whales appear to face is sonar. Because they dive so deep, they use echolocation to find prey. Blainville’s whale, for example, emits two types of clicks -- longer clicks when they’re searching for food...and short, fast clicks when they’re within a few feet of their prey. But sonar appears to scare the whales away, and may even cause them to strand themselves on shore -- a sad fate for a champion diver.