Saturday, 29 March 2014 | MYT 7:00 AM

Deeper, longer: Meet the smiling whale and new ocean diving champ

Smile, Cuvier's beaked whale, you're going into the animal book of records.

Smile, Cuvier's beaked whale, you're going into the animal book of records.

Elephant seals are the champs when it comes to long and deep sea diving. But new research shows that a grinning whale could steal its thunder.

If there were a gold medal for cetacean diving, it undoubtedly would go to the Cuvier’s beaked whale.

Scientists sat they've tracked these medium-sized whales off the coast of California using satellite-linked tags as the creatures dove down nearly 3km, and spent 2 hours and 17 minutes underwater before resurfacing. Those are breath-taking accomplishments for an air-breathing creature. In fact, those figures represent both the deepest and the longest dives ever documented for any marine mammal, says Greg Schorr of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, who led the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Many creatures live at the depths these whales dive to, including their likely primary prey of squid and fish. However, there is a major difference between these whales and the other creatures living deep in the ocean – the fundamental requirement to breathe air at the surface,” Schorr says. “Taking a breath at the surface and holding it while diving to pressures over 250 times that at the surface is an astounding feat.” Schorr added.

Cuvier's beaked whales are a rare sight in the oceans, often breaching the surface only for short gulps of air before diving up to 3km underwater to hunt. Below is an artist's rendering of an adult whale, showing the markings on its back. 

Cuvier’s beaked whales are widely distributed in many deep-water regions from the tropics to cool temperate waters, though not in polar regions. They measure up to about 7m long, with stout bodies shaped a bit like a torpedo. Their foreheads slope into a short beak with a slightly upturned mouth – leaving them with a vaguely “smiling” appearance.

Their colour ranges from grey to a reddish-brown to a pale white. Some are marked with linear white scars caused by males raking other males with their teeth, perhaps while competing for females. They feed primarily on deep-water squid and some fish near the ocean floor.

“This species is highly adapted to deep diving, spending less than two minutes at the surface between dives,” Schorr says. “These are social, warm-blooded mammals that have adapted to actively pursue their prey at astounding depths – all while up to 3km away from their most basic physiological need: air.”

A number of marine mammals are known for their deep-diving abilities. The sperm whale, the largest of the toothed whales, also swims into the ocean depths to find prey. But the deep dives of sperm whales generally are less than 1km and are followed by much longer periods of time spent at the surface, Schorr says.

Elephant seals have been documented making incredibly long and deep dives. Until this new data about Cuvier’s beaked whales, the records for deepest and longest dives by a marine mammal had been held by elephant seals – so named because adult males have large noses that look a bit like an elephant’s trunk. Elephant seals have been documented diving to depths of 2.4km and staying under water for two hours, Schorr says. But their deep dives are infrequent and followed by a comparatively long recovery time at the surface.

To track the Cuvier’s beaked whales, the scientists used satellite-linked tags that provided data on the start and end times of a dive, and the maximum depth of each dive as well as the time between dives. The tags were attached to the dorsal fin using two small titanium darts. The scientists tracked eight whales off the coast of Southern California. They were tagged in 2010, 2011 and 2012, roughly 129km west of San Diego. They amassed more than 3,700 hours of diving data. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Features , Science , Animal , Cuvier s beaked whale , whale , deepest diver , longest , underwater , cetacea , world s record


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