Ambassadors From The Abyss
The Beach Watch surveyors met at Drake’s Beach in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Shouldering backpacks filled with monitoring gear, they were prepared for the usual complement of seabirds, shorebirds, and perhaps a sea or sea lion, and whatever else the mighty ocean might cast up. Gordon Bennett had surveyed area beaches for the past quarter-century. Dominique Richard, for 16 years, both as highly trained volunteer Greater Farallones citizen scientists, community scientists intent on protecting our ocean and its creatures.
Just above the surf line lay a 9-foot cetacean (whale, dolphin, porpoise), badly scavenged and none too fresh. Among their arsenal of equipment were camera, tape measure, data sheets and other tools of the trade including identification guide; still, the team was stymied: it didn’t match any dolphin or porpoise shown. They immediately notified Beach Watch staff at the Greater Farallones Association of their find (the association manages Beach Watch for the sanctuary), and sent photos. The conclusion: a beaked whale, one of over 22 small whale species about which practically nothing is known, a rare find. Some beaked whale species are known only from beached specimens, and have never been seen alive. A newborn Hubbs’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon carlhubbsi) is the likeliest “suspect, probably orphaned. Genetic testing of samples that the California Academy of Sciences secured will reveal its exact species, in time. Still, what a find!
A MARINE MYSTERY: Beaked whales are among the planet’s least studied mammals, despite being found in all the world’s oceans. They are cryptic animals, difficult to spot at sea because of their small blow (exhalation) and shy habits, and elusive due to their very deep-diving capabilities. Since NOAA scientists have determined that several beaked whale populations are declining in the California Current Ecosystem, it's essential that the sanctuary and other scientists obtain all data possible from each and every stranding event.
DENIZENS OF THE DEEP: Beaked whales are the unchallenged masters of the ocean depths, highly engineered to survive many atmospheres of pressure during deep dives that would kill us and likely any other mammal. Cascadia Research Collective has tagged and logged Cuvier’s beaked whale dives at 9,816 feet, lasting 137 minutes. Feeding is a near-toothless procedure (males have tusks, but mostly to impress females), sucking down small squid and other deep-dwelling prey.
In frequent, vertical feeding dives they exhale on descent and flatten their lungs, leaving special proteins, myoglobin in their muscles, and hemoglobin in their blood, to store needed oxygen, aided by a high blood volume-to-body mass ratio. Lung compression also prevents gas transfer to the blood, so they don’t suffer from nitrogen narcosis, or from the bends upon re-ascent. The genius of evolution is unfathomable.
PROTECTING “PHANTOM” WHALES: Scientists at NOAA, studying them off California estimated that Cuvier’s beaked whales, once numbering over 10,700 individuals in 1981, had declined to 7,500 by 2008. Why, is a mystery. NOAA scientists suspect potential causes could include changes in the deep-water food web; for example, prey-competition for small squid, their dietary preference, by elephant seals, and by “jumbo” Humboldt squid which now range farther north, drawn here by warmer sea temperatures.
Beaked whales are highly acoustically sensitive, and ocean noise has also been implicated. Beaked whale deaths have occurred during Naval sonar tests in the Bahamas, Canary Islands, and elsewhere; these tests are not conducted here in Northern California. Also of concern is the huge increase in world shipping traffic, whose noise pervades all ocean basins. Possible shifting population distributions has also been suggested.
To protect these secretive whales, we must learn their life-history parameters - how long they live, how often they breed, at what age; their habitat needs. From examination of beached specimens, and with sonar tracking and time-depth recorder tags, and remote acoustic listening devices suspended far below the surface to locate them by sound, we have learned a little. But learning how to conserve them is complex, a puzzle of many pieces.
THE NEXT BIG “FIND:” Greater Farallones Beach Watch is a citizen/community science program currently recruiting new volunteers. Thursday, AUG 29 is the last time someone can attend an orientation. Contact Dru Devlin at Ddevlin@farallones.org. or call 415/ 530-5373. We can’t promise you beaked whales … just knowing you’re an ocean steward.
Learn more about your sanctuary at https://farallones.noaa.gov.
Top: One species, a Blainville's beaked whale, breaching. Credit: John Durban/NOAA.
Bottom: Stranded beaked whale. Credit: Gordon Bennett/Beach Watch-GFA/NOAA