Marine scientists are buzzing with news of the recent discovery of a beaked whale right here in the Pacific Ocean. Sightings of the whale have been going on in Japan for some time. Japanese fishermen called them “karasu” or ravens, for their exceptionally dark color. But only recently have scientists confirmed that they are truly a new species. So recently in fact, that they have not yet been given their formal scientific name.
The new species is a kind of beaked whale, which explains the difficulty in studying them. That’s because beaked whales tend to spend very little time at the surface, and breach infrequently. In the case of this species, its dark color helps it blend in with its surroundings, making it all the more difficult to spot.
The discovery gained momentum after the unfortunate discovery of three of the whales after they washed up on the north coast of Hokkaido in 2013. Japanese researchers began the work, and scientists from the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) jumped in to aid in the investigation. It helped that NOAA has the largest collection of cetacean samples in the world, according to Phillip Morin, a molecular biologist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Research Center in San Diego. This collection helped provide genetic comparisons to verify the new species. The analysis included 178 beaked whale specimens from areas around the Pacific Rim. Morin’s team recently published their findings in the journal Marine Mammal Science.
The new species is around two-thirds as big as a Baird’s beaked whale, which it most resembles. A Baird’s can reach a maximum length of 42 feet, based on current data. That means this new species is somewhere around 28 feet in length. Its size range will be more specific when more specimens are measured. Aside from the specimens that washed up on shore in Japan, a skull was found in the Smithsonian Institution from the Aleutian Islands in 1948, a specimen found in Alaska was in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and a tissue sample was taken from a whale that was stranded on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians in 2004. Its skeleton is on display at Unalaska high school.
Again, the challenge of finding future specimens is due to several factors. Large beaked whales can spend up to 90 minutes at a time below the surface as they hunt for squid and other preferred food items. When they do arrive at the surface, their time there is brief, sometimes lasting just a couple of minutes before they dive again for an extended period. Another factor is their tendency to travel in small groups, meaning there are fewer individuals that one can spot. Again, their dark color helps disguise them against the ocean’s surface, and if the surface it choppy, it becomes even more difficult to spot them.
It will be interesting to find out the name this new species will be given, when that day arrives. The discovery of a new whale species is a remarkable event, considering their size. It’s especially exciting that this species lives in the Pacific, considering that we’re a Maui ocean tour company. Even more so because we help fund marine science research here in Hawaii. We look forward to sharing future marine life discoveries with you as the news reaches us. In the meantime, we hope to see you onboard for one of our tours soon. Mahalo!