The Whale as Rare as a ‘Unicorn’

While onboard on a Sea Shepherd vessel near the San Benito Islands off Mexico’s Pacific Coast, a group of scientists and researchers discovered what seemed like a new species of beaked whale.

At first, they thought they were Perrin’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon Perrini), an endangered species that has never officially been spotted alive. However, after a closer look, they realised that in fact these three large mammals looked and sounded different – leading to the conclusion that they may be an entirely new species.

Simon Ager @ Sea Shepherd
Simon Ager @ Sea Shepherd

It was 17 November and the team was sailing through Mexico’s Pacific Coast when the three beaked whales appeared on the surface. Utilising an underwater microphone, the scientists were able to capture photos and video recordings of the “elusive” animals.

Elizabeth Henderson, a bioacoustics scientist, told Mongabay News: “They actually seemed to be circling us. We put in one of our acoustic recorders, and they kind of checked that out. For beaked whales, it was incredible, because beaked whales are typically so elusive when it comes to ships.”

The team was surprised when the three beaked whales came near the boat while they were doing a ‘drop’ (when scientist release acoustic recording devices into the water to capture underwater sound), mainly because the whales tend to avoid stay hidden in the deep to avoid killer whales. Beaked whales can drop to 2,000 metres below the ocean’s surface, causing obvious rarities in sightings.

However, it wasn’t until after a thorough analysis that the team started to consider the possibility of having discovered a new species of beaked whale. Thanks to the photographs the team could observe how “the whales’ teeth were unusually placed, and underwater recordings of the whales’ calls also suggested they were unique,” Dr Barlow said to the Independent.

Simon Ager @ Sea Shepherd
Simon Ager @ Sea Shepherd

“This is like searching for the last Mastodon [an exist species of elephants akin to woolly mammals] that still somehow in a valley somewhere on this planet and finding a unicorn instead,” added Barlow, who works at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Three water samples were collected in hopes of gathering DNA samples from their sloughed skin cells which will be sent for laboratory analysis. This could help in defining if in fact it is a new species never seen before.

Researchers are already planning on a future trip in early 2021, this time they will be looking for the Perrin’s beaked whale, and hoping to get another sighting of the new beaked whale. Peter Hammarstedt, the campaigns director for Sea Shepherd stated: “The discovery of a new species of beaked whale proves how much mystery there is left to discover in the oceans that our captains, crews, and research partners fight to defend”.