May16

Species speciality: Cuvier’s Beaked Whale

Categories // Bay of Biscay Wildlife Officer

Species speciality: Cuvier’s Beaked Whale

Introducing you to a strange but endearing marine mammal, the Cuvier’s Beaked whale. 

Hello everybody, Sam here again. This week the Bay of Biscay showed us what it is notorious for… strong winds! Unfortunately, because of this and the resulting bad sea states some of our deck watches were cancelled over the weekend. On Thursday however, despite the swell meaning we could see the sea over the top of the bridge, we had an incredible sighting of 2 adult fin whales with a calf!

To continue with this blog I would like to introduce you to a strange but endearing mammal, the Cuvier’s Beaked whale. Although we sadly did not see one this week it is a regular species that appears on our journeys. The Cuvier’s is one of the 22 known species of Beaked whales and is the species found in the most amount of places. That’s why it was surprising that after looking at the data, ORCA found that of all 9 sea regions surveyed between 2006 and 2015, these animals could only be found in the southern area of the Bay of Biscay! This means that the Bay is a really important area for the Cuvier’s (SOEC 2016).

These elusive individuals reach lengths between 5.5 and 7 metres and can usually be found in small groups from 1-12 individuals. Thanks to scientists tagging (placing a mini computer that collects information such as time and depth) some individuals we also have an idea of their diving patterns. These animals on average make 1 deep dive followed by 4 shallow dives. These deep dives last around 67 minutes, whilst the shallow dives last 21 minutes. During the study between 2010 and 2012 the scientists recorded the longest and deepest dive of any marine mammal: 2 hours and 18 minutes to a depth of 2,992 metres! Another thing they found is that these animals generally spend between 2 and 3 minutes at the surface between each dive. For this reason it is hard to spot these animals from a boat, especially a fast moving ferry!! If you want to know more about this study you can find it on this link: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0092633)

In terms of colour, these beaked whales vary a lot, they can be anything from dark grey, to reddish brown and even white. Their forehead is sloped and ends in a blunt beak. Only the males have teeth and even they only have 2! Out in the water, personally, and I say this with a lot of love, they look abit like floating sausages.

No matter how incredible these animals are, nor how many places they are found, they still face a number of threats. They are known to be the most at risk from stranding due to stress caused by noise. This was first detected in 2002 when 10 beaked whales, of which 8 were Cuvier’s, were found on a beach with injuries caused by gas bubbles, also known as: the bends. These strandings happened soon after sonars were being tested and have since been linked with stress caused by the noise.

Another threat that Beaked whales face is that of plastic pollution. At the beginning of 2017 a Cuvier’s washed up on a beach in Norway with 30 plastic bags in its stomach! It was incredibly shocking and therefore featured in a documentary called “A plastic whale” at the end of the year. This species feeds mainly on squid. It is believed that they either confuse the plastic bags with their prey or accidentally swallow the bags when capturing their prey.

Given that they spend so much of their time underwater and are at high risk from anthropogenic activities it is so important that we keep monitoring and identifying their habitats. Here at ORCA we love to see these wonderful animals on our trips and strive to protect them, along with the other magnificent cetaceans! 

As always, I wish Laura and Heather a great week. I hope their crossings are kinder and full of cetaceans!

Sam.