Rare Hubbs' beaked whale found washed ashore

Rare Hubbs' beaked whale found washed ashore
An extremely rare beaked whale was found washed up on a beach at Point Reyes National Seashore this week, prompting animated excitement among normally self-possessed marine scientists.

The dead 9-foot-long whale was found Monday morning on Drakes Beach by participants in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Beach Watch Program, which surveys beaches along the coast every two weeks.

"I've been doing this for 16 years now, so whenever you find something different like that it's exciting," said Dominique Richard, a retired mathematician, who with his survey partner, Gordon Bennett, found the animal just above the tide line. "It's rare, and it was completely out of the blue. It was totally unexpected."

The decomposing carcass had been scavenged a bit by sharks, so it wasn't immediately clear what species it was. Richard and Bennett measured the whale, which they at first thought was a bottlenose dolphin, and took numerous photographs.

Biologists with the California Academy of Sciences and National Park Service scientists hauled away the entire carcass Tuesday and plan to conduct a necropsy, but they have tentatively identified it as a newborn Hubbs' beaked whale.

Tissue samples were sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla (San Diego County) to confirm the species. That will take about a month.

"The best guess at this point, without having verified its species, though, is that it may have died from "maternal separation" — being orphaned," said Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, based in San Francisco. "No other cause is suspected."

Not much is known about the beaked whales except that they are the deepest diving whales. Of the 22 known species, the Cuvier's, Hubbs', Baird's and Blainville's beaked whales are known to visit Northern California.

The adult whales can measure 13 feet to 43 feet in length and weigh from 1 ton to 13 tons.

One of eight tagged Cuvier's beaked whales in a 2013 study at the Channel Islands in Southern California was recorded diving to 9,874 feet and staying there for 2 hours and 17 minutes. It was the deepest dive by a whale ever recorded and so unexpected that scientists thought at first that the monitoring equipment had malfunctioned.

Marine biologists still haven't figured out how beaked whales are able to dive to such depths, where the pressure would kill other mammals.

"They are very cryptic and hard to spot. ... We know so little about beaked whales" because "extremely deep diving animals are rarely seen," Schramm said. "They are so little studied that scientists cannot comfortably put them into a category.

One thing that is known is that they are extremely sensitive to noises, especially sonar. The most notable sightings of the whales have occurred during mass stranding events during Navy sonar tests in the Bahamas, Mediterranean and around the Canary Islands, she said.

It is believed that sonar prompts the whales to panic and surface rapidly, causing decompression. Postmortems of stranded beaked whales after sonar tests have found hemorrhaging near the ears.

Sonar is not believed to be the cause of death for the Point Reyes whale, Schramm said, because Naval sonar exercises are not done in the Bay Area.

It is believed that sonar prompts the whales to panic and surface rapidly, causing decompression. Postmortems of stranded beaked whales after sonar tests have found hemorrhaging near the ears.

Sonar is not believed to be the cause of death for the Point Reyes whale, Schramm said, because Naval sonar exercises are not done in the Bay Area.

Schramm said the beaked whale might never have been found if it weren't for the beach watch program, which has surveyed 54 beaches, from Point Arena in Mendocino County to Año Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County for the past 25 years.

A Hubbs' whale was found alive on Ocean Beach in 1989. It survived for several days before succumbing despite round-the-clock care, Schramm said.