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Rare beaked whale sighted in Australia

posted 24 Feb 2012, 11:21 by Mpelembe   [ updated 24 Feb 2012, 11:21 ]

Scientists in Australia capture what they believe is the first video of an extremely rare shepherd's beaked whale.

AT SEA OFF PORTLAND, AUSTRALIA (JANUARY 16, 2012) (CATRIONA JOHNSON OF AUSTRALIAN ANTARCTIC DIVISION - Scientists from Tasmania, Australia, captured what they believe is the first video of an extremely rare shepherd's beaked whale.

The chance encounter occurred in January as a pod of dolphins and whales frolicked in Bass Strait off the town of Portland, Australia. The scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division, who were on a research voyage at the time, were stunned with what they saw.

"And we could see bottlenose dolphins, and we could see pilot whales, and then we saw this other whale that, I knew from distance it was something unusual, something rare," said voyage member and whale scientist, Natalie Stemmata.

"To encounter this group was amazing, but the fact that they stayed at the surface for so long, so we could get many minutes of footage, is unique," said voyage leader, Dr Michael Double.

The Shepherd's beaked whale was first discovered in 1937. It inhabits subpolar waters south of Australia, and is so rare that there are believed to be only three confirmed sightings worldwide. The whales were mainly sighted after they became stranded, after which their distinctive pigmentation would fade away, making them difficult to identify.

"They've got this really prominent pale melon (forehead). They've got this amazing, sort of, black and cream pigmentation. They've sort of got a fat belly and a small fluke and this prominent beak," said Stemmata.

The scientists believe they have captured the only video footage in existence of the rare whale.

"I've never seen any other footage of shepherd's beaked whale, and since we've come back we've been doing a fair bit of research on this, but really, there are so few photographs even, never mind about footage," said Double.

The vision has revealed characteristics never before known about the beaked whale.

"We can see the way they move and the way they blow and interact with each other, and the colouration and characteristics have changed as well," said Stemmata.

The previous research paper on the Shepherd's beaked whale was published in 2006. After the recent sighting by the Australian Antarctic Division, the cetacean field guides will be expanded greatly to help others spot beaked whales at sea in the future.