Elusive whale species photographed in “once in a lifetime” encounter

A group of four True's beaked whales, a species only ever seen a handful of times, was spotted during a ferry trip. 

Two of the four True's beaked whales spotted © ORCA

Ferry passengers travelling between Portsmouth in the UK and Santander in northern Spain were treated to an incredible encounter with four True’s beaked whales Mesoplodon mirus in early July.

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The whales were seen during a wildlife photography trip delivered by ORCA, a leading marine conservation charity in the UK, alongside Jessops Academy.

They witnessed a five-minute encounter of the whales breaching – where they come to the surface to breathe, as well as tail slapping.

Watch one of the videos:

“This encounter was truly once in a lifetime, with the photos and videos gathered representing a rare opportunity to study these elusive and mysterious animals,” says ORCA director Sally Hamilton.

“It reinforces the important role that citizen scientists have to play in collecting data on marine life, as without the dedication of the ORCA volunteers on board, it would not have been possible to get such an unprecedented insight into these animals.”

The True’s beaked whale is a species of Odontoceti, which are toothed whales. Cetaceans are split into two main groups – Odontoceti (toothed whales) and Mysticeti (baleen whales).

There are 23 species of beaked whales, including Cuvier’s beaked whale, which holds the record for the greatest dive-depth known for a mammal (2,992m).

The True’s beaked whale is rarely seen, and is also extremely difficult to identify due to its similarity to other species.

The photographs captured by Brian Clasper from ORCA, as well as videos taken on the Brittany Ferries ship are of such an excellent standard that beaked whale specialists could use them to identify the species.

Dr James Mead, an expert on beaked whales from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History says: “I have never seen such magnificent photos as these”.

These photographs and videos will now be used to further enhance information about the species. To date, this has otherwise mostly come from dead individuals that have washed onto the shore.

At this stage, from the information gathered, it is believed that the True’s beaked whale actually has more than two protruding teeth, which is not known in any other beaked whale.

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Prior to this, there has been only one other confirmed sighting of the species in the same area, in 2001.