Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Beaked whales are around but they keep a low profile

Last January, a beaked whaled washed up on the Waianae Coast. I was off-island when it happened, but a friend saved me the story.

I squinted at the dead whale picture, showing a fluke (tail) and part of a dark, spotted body. The fluke had an unusual shape, and white scars crisscrossed the body.

What is a beaked whale? I wondered, wishing the photo showed more. What I didn't realize was that the odd fluke and those distinct scars were practically signatures in identifying this little-known family of whales.

At least 19 species of beaked whales swim the world's oceans. These offshore whales seem like rare species, but this is likely more from their elusive habits than from small numbers.

Beaked whales tend to shun boats, swim alone or in small groups and have no distinct "blow" to help identify them at sea. Also, these whales can make dives up to an hour long, often causing one brief glimpse to be the last.

One marine photographer wrote that he once spotted four beaked whales, one an albino, off the Big Island's Kona Coast.

Excited about getting a picture of a little-seen species, and an albino to boot, the photographer and his companion got ready to jump into the water, then waited.

And waited. After long silent moments, the two men gazed into the deep blue water, wondering what those whales were doing down there in the dark. Finally, it was obvious the whales were gone. The disappointed photographers did not get one shot.

What beaked whales are doing at those cold ocean depths is looking for squid. Like many of their toothed-whale relatives, beaked whales eat squid, supplemented with fish and bottom-dwelling animals.

Unlike other toothed whales, however, beaked whales don't have jaws full of teeth. Most beaked whale species have no teeth in the upper jaw and only two or four in the lower jaw.

In females, these few teeth usually remain concealed under the gums. In males, however, the teeth, sometimes called tusks, erupt. Since the lower jaw extends beyond the upper, these teeth often poke up outside the whales' mouths like blunt weapons.

And weapons they are. Although no one has ever seen it happen, researchers believe beaked whales use these teeth to fight one another, probably in ramming matches for females. It is during these scuffles that both males and females get scarred.

Some beaked whales are well-suited for such violent collisions. Part of one type of a beaked whale's calcified upper jaw is the hardest material known in the animal kingdom, surpassing even elephant and walrus ivory.

Beaked whales aren't commonly seen, but it doesn't mean they aren't in Hawaiian waters. Boaters should be alert in the deep waters off the Kona Coast.

Beaked whales look like big, slow-moving dolphins, with a backward-pointing dorsal fin positioned about three-quarters down the animal's back. Also, beaked whale flukes are either straight across with no central notch, or an off-center notch.

Beaked whales range in length from about 15 feet to 40 feet.

Since little is known about beaked whales, distinguishing species at sea is difficult. However, two species of beaked whales, Cuvier's and Blainville's, have been confirmed in Hawaiian waters.

The beaked whale found on the Waianae Coast last January has not been identified yet due to a deformity, probably congenital, of its mouth. The National Marine Fisheries Service is testing the whale's DNA.

If you spot a beaked whale, in Hawaii or anywhere, consider it an extraordinary experience. The Peruvian beaked whale was discovered only in 1991.

Another is still out there, briefly observed, but still uncaptured, unnamed and virtually unknown.

Susan Scott is a marine science writer and author of three books about Hawaii's environment. Her Ocean Watch column appears Monday in the Star-Bulletin.

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