The vessel was sailing off the edge of the Porcupine Bight, a deep-water basin southwest of Ireland. Three cetaceans passed within 50 metres of the boat. Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) experts identified them as True’s beaked whales, creatures so elusive that, prior to 1995, they were known only from dead specimens.
“With only two confirmed sightings in the wild (these) must be some of the most rarely seen animals on the planet,” says the IWDG website. It’s thought to be only the second time the species has been photographed. Nine days later, a beaked whale and her calf became stranded on St Kilda, 64km west of the Hebrides. They turned out to be Sowerby’s beaked whales. Scottish National Trust staff managed to refloat the pair but the mother died. The calf was released and swam out to sea. It’s unlikely, however, that it will survive without its mother.
There are two kinds of whale, those which use a baleen, or sieve, and those with teeth. Fin and humpbacked whales belong to the baleen group. Orcas and dolphins, such as Fungi, have teeth. The beaked whales are of the toothed persuasion but their lifestyles are different from the rest of the tribe. Twenty-one species are known, nine of them not discovered until the 20th Century. The smallest, the pygmy beaked whale, was not described until 1991, when a rotting carcass was found on a beach in Baja, California. Scientists believe that other species are out there waiting to be discovered.
Beaked-whales get their name from the beak-like projection of their jaws. They have only two pairs of teeth and these don’t erupt in the females of most species. They are prodigious swimmers and dive to great depths. Some may surpass even the sperm whale, of Moby Dick fame, in the depth and duration of dives.
In 1913, Frederic True, a curator at the United States National Museum, now part of the Smithsonian, described the species which bears his name. Although True’s beaked whale frequents all oceans apart from polar ones, most records come from the west of Ireland. According to Tom Hayden of UCD, they were found at seven locations between Cork and Galway during the 20th Century. It’s a bulky creature about five metres long, weighing up to one and half tonnes.
What’s known about its biology comes almost entirely from dead specimens. There are even disputes as to its colour: whale carcasses darken after death. True’s whales seem to live in small groups. Analyses of the stomach contents of dead ones suggest that they feed mainly on squid and deep-water fish. Long scars on the males’ bodies are thought to be tooth marks inflicted during fights over females. It’s believed that babies are born in the spring.
James Sowerby was an English naturalist and illustrator. In 1800, he described a whale which had become stranded in the Moray Firth. It was the first beaked whale to become known to science. The skull is in the Oxford University Museum. Sowerby’s beaked whale likes cooler waters although one was found on the coast of Italy. There have been at least four strandings on the Irish coast up to the year 2000. A skull from one of these is displayed in the Natural History Museum in Dublin. These animals are fast swimmers, shy of boats. The ‘blow’, the steamy cloud of warm air whales expel when they surface, is said to be inconspicuous, making it difficult to notice the animal’s presence. Virtually nothing is known about its social life. The scars found on Sowerby males are similar to those found on True’s so, it seems, they also fight over females. Stranded ones were estimated to be up to 35 years old.
The beaked whales that live in Irish waters are 10 times heavier than the red deer, our largest land animal. Yet few people have even heard of them!