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A Bryde's whale sighted in the Maldives.
Photo: Chris Johnson

February 3, 2003
Bryde's Whale Sighting
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Maldives.

The Bryde's whale is an enigma. Compared to many other species such as humpbacks, grays and southern right whales, favourites of the whale watch industry, the Bryde's whale is rarely seen. Even when it is observed at sea, it is often misidentified.

While tracking a group of sperm whales off the northwest shelf of Huvadhoo Atoll, some of us were perched on the bow scanning the surface for sperm whale blows when suddenly, in the distance we sighted a strange blow the distance and bearing of which we reported to Captain Bob. Bob turned Odyssey in the direction of the blow and we kept our eyes trained on the area we had last seen the cloud of vapour. As we approached, each blow became more distinct, until we could see that it was a tall, narrow cloud easily visible against the dark grey sky. It was clear that this was not the blow of a sperm whale.

When we were about 200 meters away, we realized that the whale was heading in our direction. A rather narrow, pointed snout broke the surface, followed by a blow and a long rolling back. Finally a high arch revealed a dorsal fin, a thick tailstock and finally the flukes of a broad tail just as the whale disappeared. The slender, streamlined body could only belong to a fast-swimming rorqual - the large baleen whales which all have throat grooves.

The blow of the Bryde's whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The seas were confused and the light poor due to think cloud cover, and we were not close enough to identify the species but we followed the whale through four dive cycles before returning to the now fast-disappearing sperm whales whose click trains on the acoustic array were fading rapidly. It was a group we didn't want to risk losing.

On two occasions the rorqual resurfaced in almost exactly the same position it had dived. Each time we turned off the engine and waited. While at the surface, the whale blew 10 times and then dove for a period of five to eight minutes. Finally we got a good enough look to identify the animal as a Bryde's whale.

Bryde's whales are strikingly similar in appearance to Sei whales and can even be confused with Fin and Minke whales. Bryde's whales generally have three ridges on their rostrum (the top of the upper jaw) while other rorquals only have one. As with all baleen whales, females are larger than males (in this case only marginally) and may exceed 15.5 meters (50 feet) in length, reaching a maximum weight of about 25 tons. This whale is usually dark grey in color on its back, while its belly is creamier. Its skin may also be mottled with circular scars that are probably caused by parasites and cookie-cutter sharks. The 40 to 70 throat pleats allow the ventral pouch to extend and consume concentrated amounts of its preferred prey, schooling fish and krill. Unlike toothed whales such as the sperm whale, baleen whales like this Bryde's whale, are usually found alone or in small groups. This reduces feeding competition on smaller patches of higher-quality food.

Recent genetic analyses conducted on this species by Dr. Andy Dizon, has revealed that the Bryde's whale is not a single species, but in fact two, a 'regular' and a 'pygmy' form. The pygmy averaging one to two meters shorter in length. Remarkably, DNA sequencing of the two species has proven them to be more distantly related to each other than either one is to the Sei whale. To make matters more complicated, the regular Bryde's whale appears to consist of two types, an 'inshore' and an 'offshore' form, which differ is distribution, movement and ecology.

The back of the Bryde's whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Bryde's whales were not recognized as a separate species until 1878, and confusion reined long after that. As a result of several decades of misidentification, catch statistics for this species are greatly confused and it is impossible to know how many of each form of these whales were actually killed and indeed how many are left today.

Unfortunately for the Bryde's whale, pronounced (Broo - das), it must endure the indignity of being named after Johan Bryde, a Norwegian whaler. Though in many respects it has faired much better than most other whales due to its preference for warmer seas. Bryde's whales are creatures of the tropic regions and don't appear to venture pole ward where much of the commercialised whaling of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was concentrated. As a result, it may be that this species is not critically endangered anywhere within its range, though there is still much to be learned about this illusive, under-researched cetacean. Sadly, this species is currently a target of the Japanese 'scientific' whaling operations - along with Sperm, Sei and Minke whales. They are a focus for those who continue to argue that science will benefit more from a dead whale, than from studying the living animal.

For all of us on the crew, this encounter, though relatively brief, has been one of the highlights of our time in the Maldives so far.


Written by Genevieve Johnson

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