Longman's beaked whales photographed in the Maldives.
Photo : Chris Johnson
September 18, 2003
Longman's Beaked Whales Sighted by Odyssey Crew
The beaked whales (Ziphiidae) are among the least known and most elusive large mammals on earth.
A diverse collection of roughly twenty species of deep diving toothed whales, some may be genuinely rare, while others may simply elude observation because of the relative rarity of vessels working in deep ocean where these species are encountered. The majority of information gathered on these little-known whales has been collected from stranded specimens or skeletal remains. There is little data on the living animal of most species of Ziphiids, and some have never been seen alive.
Among beaked whales, the Longman's beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus) is one of the least known species, and is known from little more than skeletal remains and a few sightings at sea.
The Ocean Alliance research vessel Odyssey, is currently working in the Indian Ocean as part of a 5-year global voyage assessing levels of synthetic contaminants in the oceans. Because we use biopsy darts to take skin and blubber samples from sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), our work requires that we keep a lookout for cetaceans in all daylight hours, and listen with towed hydrophones for them at all times while underway. At 9:41 am on February 2, 2003, 40 kilometers off the western coast of the Maldive islands in the Indian Ocean, Odyssey crewmembers watched a group of five beaked whales of a species about 6-7 meters long, rapidly approach the stern of the vessel while it was under sail and traveling at 8 km per hour. For 10 minutes they swam alongside the Odyssey at a distance of 30-200 meters, which enabled the crew to take photos and observe the behavior of the group at close range. The group appeared to consist of four adults and a calf that was clearly staying within 2 meters on one of the adults. Another adult had a pronounced bulbous forehead, suggesting that it was an adult male.
Based on our photos and notes, there is little doubt that these were Longman's beaked whales, arguably one of the least known and most elusive of beaked whales. This sighting along with others reported from the Indian Ocean by Dr. Charles Anderson, suggests that the Indian Ocean may prove to be a promising area for dedicated research on this little-known species. To our knowledge, these pictures are among the first confirmed photographs of a free-swimming Longman's beaked whale taken in the wild.
Odyssey Chief Scientist Dr. Peter Madsen describes the experience:
"To see living flesh on the bones of an animal that has eluded science for so long is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had as a scientist. The sighting of one of the first live Longman's beaked whales is a sober reminder that we still have much to learn, and that there is a greater need than ever to understand the world's ecosystems and its inhabitants in order to preserve them. It is also extremely motivating in the process of developing benign research techniques to study live whales in their own environment. Advances in research on whales is only restricted by the lack of human ingenuity - not by the fact that they are alive."
- Dr. Peter Teglberg Madsen.
Dr. Charles Anderson of the Marine Research Centre in the Maldives emphasizes the significance of the sighting -
"Longman's beaked whale is one of the least known of all whales. So much so that every single sighting, like this one from the Odyssey, is of great scientific interest. I find it amazing that even today there are animals the size of elephants roaming the oceans about which we really know almost nothing. But how exciting to be in the Maldives and see these animals alive in their natural environment!"
- Dr. Charles Anderson
Voyage of the Odyssey Chief Scientist Dr. Celine Godard comments on Ocean Alliance's sighting of a live Longman's beaked whale -
"This is a very significant event for the marine mammal community at large. The photos and information collected by the Odyssey crew on the behavior and morphology of these whales represent an invaluable advancement in our understanding of this elusive species."
- Dr. Celine Godard
Dr. John Nicolas, a research scientist for National Marine Fisheries states -
"The recent photographs and observations of live Longman's beaked whales in the Indian Ocean by Ocean Alliance scientists is a very exciting discovery. Indeed, this a very important find with respect to the science of marine mammals. In general little is known regarding the life history of the entire genus, which consists of twenty species, and clearly the Longman's beaked whale is no exception. Until now, this species has only been known by the beach cast remains of three specimens. The Ocean Alliance scientists have captured, what we believe to be the first, live photographs of this animal in its natural environment. This discovery will hopefully stimulate continued and expanded research into the understanding of this very mysterious group of animals within the family Ziphiidae."
- Dr. John Nicolas
Ocean Alliance Vice President and CEO Iain Kerr reflects on the sighting of the Longman's beaked whale -
"We need more voyages like the Odyssey, spending extended periods of time offshore. There is so much we have to learn about whales and our oceans - this is just further confirmation of that fact - this is why we are out there."
- Captain Iain Kerr - Voyage of the Odyssey Expedition Leader
A sighting as significant as this takes time to verify.
The crew are elated to have these photographs postively identified as Longman's beaked whales
and hope to continue to
document unique sightings of such scientific significance during the rest of the Voyage.
- What did the crew report on one year ago in the Seychelles?
Two years ago in Australia?
Three years ago on the Pacific Passage -> Real Audio: > Audio
- The crew examined the remains of a previously stranded Longman's Beaked Whale in the Maldives - read more.
Written by Genevieve Johnson