Scientists working with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society off the western coast of Mexico believe they’ve identified a previously unknown species of whale.
The team saw three beaked whales surfacing during a mission to identify the source of an acoustic signal that had been recorded in the area, some 100 miles north of the San Benito Islands off of Baja California, Mexico.
At first, researchers thought the whales may be Perrin’s beaked whales, a species so elusive they’ve never officially been sighted alive. They soon suspected, however, they’d stumbled upon a new species altogether.
Beaked whale biologists aboard Sea Shepherd’s vessel took underwater photos and videos of the whales, as well as audio recordings of their acoustic signals and genetic samples that are currently being analyzed. The set of clicks that these beaked whales were emitting had never been recorded, and each whale species uses a specific acoustic signal to communicate underwater. The spotted whales were also physically different from all other known beaked whales, including a different tooth pattern.
“The whales, amazingly, surfaced four or five times really close to the ship,” Elizabeth Henderson, an expedition bioacoustics scientist from the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, tells Mongabay. “They actually seemed to be circling us. We put in one of our acoustic recorders, and they kind of checked that out. For beaked whales, it was incredible, because beaked whales are typically so elusive when it comes to ships.”
The beaked whales spotted on the Sea Shepherd expedition crest.
Elizabeth Henderson/Sea Shepherd
"We saw something new. Something that was not expected in this area, something that doesn't match, either visually or acoustically, anything that is known to exist," says Jay Barlow, a senior NOAA scientist and a researcher on the expedition, a Sea Shepard press release. "It just sends chills up and down my spine when I think that we might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible—finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science."