They were first identified in 1913 by Smithsonian scientist Frederick William True. They are so rare that despite their elephant-like size, True’s beaked whales had never been filmed in their natural habitat, until a few years ago. In 2013, a group of science students was on an educational trip to Portugal’s Azores Islands when they captured a footage of the True’s beaked whales. Unfortunately, at the time, they had no idea that what they had just filmed was a historic first.

True's Beaked Whales
Image Credit: Natacha Aguilar de Soto / PeerJ / YouTube video (screenshot)

Beaked whales live deep in the ocean

Natacha Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said she couldn’t believe it when she first saw the 47-second video clip. She had been studying beaked whales for more than a decade, but she had never seen a True’s whale. Until now, 22 different species of beaked whales have been identified.

Beaked whales have dolphin-like noses and torpedo-shaped bodies. They can go up to a depth of 9,800 feet and stay there for about two hours. After the deep dive, they return to the surface only for brief intervals. Marine biologists estimate that they spend 92% of their lives deep in the ocean. Their specialized beaks allow them to suck up fish, crustaceans, and squid.

Only a few people have seen True’s beaked whales alive

Natacha Aguilar de Soto and her colleagues discuss the details of the study in the journal PeerJ. The unprecedented footage shows two adult True’s beaked whales swimming close to the water surface with a calf near the Azores Islands. They are so rare that only a few people have seen them alive. Little is known about the giant whale’s behavior or appearance. The latest study would make it easier for marine biologists to identify the species in the future.

Since their identification more than a century ago, many True’s beaked whales have washed ashore across the North Atlantic and South Pacific. Their dead bodies are often bloated and decaying. But for scientists, they are one of the best specimens of the species for study. Natacha Aguilar de Soto combined data from sightings and strandings with genetic analysis of whales from both the northern and southern hemispheres.

These whales live on a ‘physiological tightrope’

For the study, scientists analyzed the genome of two whales: one that washed up near Faial, the Azores in 2004 and another that was found in 2012 in El Hierro, Canary Islands. The genetic analysis was aimed at confirming their identity as True’s beaked whales. Natacha Aguilar de Soto said it was one of the most comprehensive analyses of True’s beaked whales.

The study could prove crucial to the protection efforts for the species. We do not know how large their population is. Since they spend most of their time deep in the ocean, the True’s beaked whales live on a “physiological tightrope.” Natacha Aguilar de Soto said the giant mammal needs to maintain an equilibrium within its body to withstand the immense pressure in deep water. Noise pollution and water pollution could easily disturb the equilibrium.