While tracking blue whales off the coast of Australia, Australian researchers set marine mammal history on Feb. 23, 2012, recording a previously unseen species. That day the Australian Antarctic Division team of the Australian government filmed a Shepherd’s Beaked Whale (also known as the Tasman Beaked Whale), permanently recording a species that had only been spotted twice before, but never photographed or filmed.
Discovered in 1937 based on dead specimens that had been washed ashore, the Shepherd’s beaked whale (Tasmacetus shepherdi) has been one of the most mysterious cetaceans in history. Only two previous sighting have been confirmed: an individual near New Zealand and a group of three near Western Australia.
Previously thought to be a solitary animal, the Shepherd’s beaked whale is now known to at least travel occasionally in pods. The 2012 footage revealed a pod estimated to be 10-12 individuals, forcing researchers to rethink everything they thought they knew about the species.
“To find them in a pod is very exciting and will change the guide books,” Michael Double, the expedition leader, said. “Our two whale experts will now carefully study the footage to work out the whale sizes and so on and prepare a scientific paper.”
The Shepherd’s beaked whale is one of 22 species in the Family Ziphiidae (beaked whales) and they are all so similar in appearance that even experienced researchers have difficulty telling species of them apart even when they’re dead. Adding to the difficulty are the shared behavioral traits of beaked whales that help maintain their anonymity: they maintain a low profile above the surface, avoiding breaching or attention-getting techniques displayed by other whales. Instead, beaked whales will typically make little noise or show when breathing at the surface despite often being in pods of up to 20 individuals and occasionally in groups as large as 50. Beaked whales also feed in deep water, often in depths of 2,500-4,000 feet (800-1,200 m), further complicating research on the animals.