A Never-Before Seen Whale

A pair of spade-toothed beaked whales wash up in New Zealand

Nov 12, 2012 | By Veronique Greenwood for TIME

In December of 2010, mammal scientist Anton van Helden was driving in New Zealand when he received a phone call. It was an employee from the ocean conservation department telling him two beaked whales had washed up at a place called Opape Beach in New Zealand. Van Helden didn’t think much of the news since the animals were thought to be Gray’s beaked whales, which wash up on the country’s shores pretty often. He told the employee they could look into it later.

A few months later, van Helden received another phone call about the whales. This time, it was Rochelle Constantine, a marine biologist at the University of Auckland. “I hope you’re sitting down,” Constantine said. Then she told van Helden that the animals found in December were not Gray’s. They were instead a pair of spade-toothed beaked whales: the most mysterious species of whale in the world, known only from bone fragments washed up over the course of 140 years. The species had never been seen in the flesh before.

A Mysterious Animal

The newly seen whale looks very much like the common Gray's spade-toothed whale (pictured above.)
The newly seen whale looks very much like the common Gray's spade-toothed whale (pictured above.)

After that call, van Helden and his team got to work. They looked at measurements and photos of the whales. They also examined the whales’ skeletons. The adult female measured just over 17 feet, and the young male measured 11.5 feet from beak to tail fin. The shape and color of both specimens were very similar to other beaked whales. It would be easy to confuse the pair with the more commonly seen Gray’s. The team was able to tell the difference using bones. They compared the whales’ bones to three bones that had washed up before. A lower jaw was found in 1872, and two skulls were found in 1986. Until now, those had been the only evidence of the species.

After those bones were discovered, scientists made guesses about what the whole whale would look like. They were never able to figure it out exactly. That’s why this find had the team so excited. “It was the first time ever that anybody had ever had even a hint of what these things looked like,” van Helden says.

The Search Continues

The new discovery is a big step forward for scientists interested in beaked whales. But there is still much to learn about both this species and its close relatives. A goal of many scientists is to see the animal alive in the wild.

Scott Baker, a marine scientist at Oregon State University, saw his first live, beaked whale last month in Samoa. The sighting lasted about 4 seconds before the animal dove — too brief to tell if it was a spade-toothed. “Their environment is very remote,” he says. “It’s deep water, and they’re submerged for maybe 96% of their lives.”

Van Helden says the spade-toothed whale is the size of a big car and has to come to the surface to breathe. “And yet no one has ever seen one alive,” he says. “It typifies how little we know about the ocean.”