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A Gray's Beaked Whale stranded on Leighton Beach outside of Perth.
Photo: Chris Johnson

February 3, 2002
A Rare Stranding Event
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey. After finishing vital maintenance on the hull of the vessel, we are now back at sea looking for whales while facing strong winds and high seas.

The other day as we were lowering the Odyssey back into the water after two weeks of work in dry dock, we received a phone call from our partners at the World Wildlife Fund in Sydney. They told us that apparently there had been a whale stranding on Leighton Beach less than five kilometres to the north of us in Fremantle. It was not known if the animal was alive or dead or even what species it was.

With the Odyssey safely back in the water the crew hastily departed in a taxi and headed towards the area of the stranded whale. We arrived at the beach, the location of the whale immediately revealed by a circle of curious onlookers. The whale was dead and had been identified by Doug Coughran, marine wildlife officer for the Department of Conservation and Land Management, {CALM} as one of the least-known large animals in the world, a Gray's beaked whale. Mr. Coughran explained how whales change color when they die and this one had changed from light grey to black soon after he arrived before 8am, indicating it had died early on the morning it was found. It was fortunate that there was only one animal. Often toothed whales strand together as they have strong social bonds and are reluctant to leave a companion in distress. Only the day before, two beaked whales of the same species were assisted off a beach in Albany, 330 nautical miles south of Fremantle.

The head of the Gray's Beaked Whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The beaked whales form their own family, the Ziphiidae. A protruding upper and lower jaw, lack of a central notch in the tail fin and a long spindly body, characterizes them. This peculiarly specialized group of whales have radiated into14 known species, all are thought to inhabit deep ocean trenches and are either genuinely rare or extremely elusive. Indeed most of what we know about beaked whales is from stranded animals. The studies of living beaked whales are still in their infancy. During the Voyage of the Odyssey, we have had twenty-three sightings of beaked whales. Scientists onboard were only able to identify the species in twelve of these sightings as we were rarely given more than a fleeting glance.

As a general rule, beaked whales are slow and sluggish, sightings are brief as they spend little time at the surface and produce low inconspicuous blows. The distribution of most species is poorly documented and is mostly constructed from a limited number of strandings or skeletal material. Almost nothing is known of their social structure and behavior. In the early 1990's, two new species of beaked whale were discovered and there have also been several reports of an unidentified beaked whale in Indo-pacific waters that does not conform to the description of any currently recognized species. It was originally thought that perhaps this mystery whale may have been indopacetus pacificus, the least known of all ziphiids, recorded from only two skeletons and has never been seen alive, however a paper published by Pitman et al. in 1999 theorized that it may in fact be an unknown species of tropical bottlenose whale.

Not much is known about Gray's beaked whale as it lives in deep ocean habitats such as the Rottnest Trench, west of Fremantle, where, like their sperm whale cousins, they travel to depths of over one kilometre in search of squid.

The whale was eventually taken away and buried.
Photo: Chris Johnson

A particularly small head and a long slender beak that it generally raises out of the water first when surfacing distinguish Gray's beaked whale, its body coloring ranges from a bluish to brownish gray. The limited number of sightings seems to suggest that this species may be more social and live in larger groups, there is even one record of a mass stranding of 28 animals. It is not known why this particular 3.9-meter female stranded (12.8 feet), as there were no visible signs of injury or trauma.

Even though this was an unfortunate event, it was an amazing opportunity to observe one of these rarely seen animals at close quarters, adding another piece to the jigsaw which may help reveal the mysterious biology and behavior of these whales. Tragedies like this can also be an opportunity to learn more about these whales assisting in the prevention of future strandings.


Log by Genevieve Johnson

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