Rare whales caught on video off Australia

2012-02-28 17:01

Sydney - Australian scientists have captured what they believe to be the first video of an extremely rare whale, the Shepherd's beaked whale, which has been spotted for sure only a handful of times since its discovery a little over 70 years ago.

A pod of the unusual cetacean, which can grow as long as a bus (7m) and weigh as much as a sedan car (up to 3 tons) was spotted frolicking amongst dolphins and pilot whales in the Eastern Bass Strait, off the coast of Victoria and Tasmania, in January.

"What is so unique about this sighting is, we got so many photographs and HD video, so really it's indisputable," said Mike Double, a research scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division, a government research unit for Antarctica.

Known as "Tasmacetus shepherdi," the whales are distinguished by their melon-shaped foreheads, fat bellies and a prominent beak. They were first discovered in 1937 but because they are an offshore species, they have remained elusive.

"For many of the whales, what we know about them is from their bodies when they are washed ashore. But even so there's only a handful of strandings," said Double.

Though the whales are thought to usually be solitary, there were a dozen or more of them in the pod that Double's group saw.

Double had no explanation for the sighting and said it was difficult to know if environmental factors such as climate change were having an impact on cetaceans in general and these in particular, due to a lack of information.

Very rare

"To understand those sorts of things you need very long term data sets and really they're only available for a handful of species that have been monitored for a long period of time," he said.

"You then start to see patterns where they have poor years through warming events related associated with El Nino and so on. To actually link it to climate change, that's a very difficult thing to do."

Though he believes it will take a long time to really understand the biology of the elusive cetaceans, he is hopeful that if each sighting is well-documented the pool of knowledge will eventually increase.

At present, they are seen so infrequently it's impossible to even know whether they're under threat, the way many other whale species are.

"We simply don't know how many are out there to know if they are endangered as they are seen so infrequently that we know very little about their biology at all," Double said.

Read more on:    australia  |  marine life  |  animals

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