An enigma of the ocean has been photographed by passengers travelling on a ferry from Portsmouth to Spain.
Confirmed sightings of True’s beaked whales have only been made three times previously in the North Atlantic.
Science’s understanding of beaked whales has mostly been made from the stranding of dead animals.
But this group of the whales – estimated at being 16 foot (five metres) long – were spotted breaching the waters off the coast off Santander earlier this month.
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An enigma of the ocean has been photographed by passengers travelling on a ferry from Portsmouth to Spain. Confirmed sightings of True’s beaked whales (circled) have only been made three times previously in the North Atlantic
True’s beaked whales – first discovered in 1913 – are difficult to identify as they can easily be confused with other marine animals.
But Orca, a marine conservation charity, confirmed that these photographed animals were four True’s beaked whales – and these pictures are some of the best ever taken.
Four of the animals surfaced around 160 ft (50 metres) away from a Brittany Ferries ship travelling from Portsmouth to Santander on July 4.
Giveaway signs include the lighter colouration on the underside, and protruding teeth in the beak.
Science’s understanding of beaked whales has mostly been made from the stranding of dead animals. But this group of the whales – estimated at being 16 foot (five metres) long – were spotted breaching the waters off the coast off Santander earlier this month
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT TRUE’S BEAKED WHALES?
True’s beaked whales are members of the family Ziphiidae, the second largest family of cetaceans – which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Many of the 22 species of beaked whales are among the least known or understood mammals in the world.
So rarely are they seen in the wild that three new species of beaked whales have been discovered in just the last two decades.
Living in deep waters, usually far offshore, these creatures spend 92 per cent of their time underwater.
Beaked whales break diving records, feeding at depths that can reach almost two miles deep (three kilometres) and last up to two hours.
True’s beaked whales are members of the family Ziphiidae, the second largest family of cetaceans – which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Many of the 22 species of beaked whales are among the least known or understood mammals in the world (stock)
After these diving feats, they rest, performing shorter and shallower dives with brief surfacing intervals.
These behaviours, combined with the fact that they live in small groups, are not usually attracted to boats, and do not perform aerial acrobatics as much as dolphins, mean that beaked whales are not easy to detect at sea.
Many beaked whales also share colour patterns with other ziphiid species, making identification of the whales difficult during sea encounters when often only a short glimpse of their bodies is available.
They are found in two geographically distinct areas, and these populations may soon be separated into two subspecies or even separate species.
Positive identification at sea is extremely difficult and in the northern reaches of the range it can be virtually impossible without a clear view of the head (of males only), to distinguish between a True’s and a Gervais’ beaked whale.
They also have a less bulbous ‘melon’ – the bump between the snout and head than other beaked whale species.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN] reports that ‘True’s beaked whales have only rarely been identified’.
This sighting came during a wildlife photography trip ORCA organised with Jessops Academy.
The whales were seen ‘breaching’ – throwing their bodies out of the water – and tail slapping during a five-minute long display.
The vast majority of our knowledge of the animals comes from 51 dead beaked whales found washed up ashore, mostly on the west coast of Ireland.
Beaked whales are a group of deep diving, toothed cetaceans that are often found around deep sea canyons.
So few people have seen True’s beaked whales, that little is known about the appearance and behaviour of the mammals (stock footage)
True’s beaked whales sometimes breach and this gives observers a better opportunity to identify the species. Here, the two little white dots in the front of the beak show that this animal is a male True’s beaked whale (stock footage)
ORCA Director, Sally Hamilton, said: ‘This encounter was truly once in a lifetime, with the photos and videos gathered representing a rare opportunity to study these elusive and mysterious animals.
‘It reinforces the important role that citizen scientists have to play in collecting data on marine life, as without the dedication of the ORCA volunteers on board, it would not have been possible to get such an unprecedented insight into these animals.’
Hamilton continued: ‘This type of encounter shows that you don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to see whales and dolphins.’
Dr James Mead of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on beaked whales, commented on the photos: ‘I have just written a book with Richard Ellis, combining our experiences on beaked whales, and I have never seen such magnificent photos as these.
‘True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus) is known from 51 strandings in the North Atlantic.’
‘But, strandings represent animals that have died, and may have strayed from their native habitat. This sighting of 4 individuals, who are gleefully jumping, gives us one more picture of that species.
‘This species is also known from the Southern Oceans where there have been 28 strandings. The southern population is coloured quite a bit different from the North Atlantic population.’
WHEN WERE TRUE’S BEAKED WHALES CAPTURED IN UNDERWATER FOOTAGE FOR THE FIRST TIME?
A species of elusive deep-diving whale was captured on film for the first time in its underwater environment in March 2017.
The footage was recorded in the coastal waters of the Azores and shows three majestic True’s beaked whales surfacing.
True´s beaked whales spend 92 per cent of their time underwater, which means sightings are scarce.
So far, only seven live sightings of the species have been reported in Macaronesia, a region in the North Atlantic ocean.
The footage was released by a group of international scientists, led by St Andrews University, who have been studying recorded sightings of the mammals.
It was captured by staff from a German educational firm who were leading a school expedition.
Three beaked whales surfaced and milled near a drifting small inflatable boat for about ten minutes, allowing the group the opportunity to capture the footage.
The study collected data gathered by scientists from such standings and other sightings of the whales. This included whale watch companies and educational teams in the Azores and Canary Islands, which were revealed as an ideal location to study the elusive mammals