Mystery of Scammon's Lagoon beaked whales

The least-known of the world’s large mammals

Goose-beaked whale, Del Mar, September, 1945. “About seven men went into the surf that night, attached a rope to the creature’s tail, and pulled it ashore amid wild thrashing.... It was of good flavor and tender when roasted or fried.’’
  • Goose-beaked whale, Del Mar, September, 1945. “About seven men went into the surf that night, attached a rope to the creature’s tail, and pulled it ashore amid wild thrashing.... It was of good flavor and tender when roasted or fried.’’
  • Hubbs/Sea World Research Institute

One morning in December, 1980, Bill Everett, a naturalist on a whale-watching boat out of San Diego, was walking along Malarrimo Beach in Baja California when he saw a bone sticking up out of the sand. He tugged on it but couldn’t budge it, so Everett scraped away the sand until he had exposed what turned out to be an animal’s skull. The blowholes in the top identified it as a cetacean.

Skull of Ginko-toothed beaked whale. It seems incredible that mammals some twenty feet long could have survived for so long almost unseen by human eyes.

Skull of Ginko-toothed beaked whale. It seems incredible that mammals some twenty feet long could have survived for so long almost unseen by human eyes.

Malarrimo Beach is a desolate, seldom-visited place near the mouth of Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon). Currents and upwellings make it a catch basin for all kinds of ocean-borne litter, including whale and seal bones, seashells, and soft drink cans from as far away as Japan. But the skull Everett had found was particularly intriguing; it was too large for a dolphin, too small for one of the great whales, and it had a long, thin, almost birdlike snout. He photographed it, and when he returned to San Diego compared his photographs with the collection of cetacean skulls at the natural history museum in Balboa Park.

Goose-beaked whale off Baja California. “We came up alongside them and we could see they were beaked whales. The unusual thing was that they didn’t dive and disappear forever."

Goose-beaked whale off Baja California. “We came up alongside them and we could see they were beaked whales. The unusual thing was that they didn’t dive and disappear forever."

“There was nothing even close to what it was,” Everett, a wildlife biologist with extensive experience in Baja California, recalled not long ago. “At that point 1 was really baffled. ” Everett showed his photos of the skull to one of the museum’s paleontologists, who had never seen anything like it before, either. But after searching through a number of obscure reference books, the two men eventually identified the skull as that of a beaked whale.

Ginko-toothed beaked whale, Del Mar, 1953. Today, the animal that Gilmore examined remains the only one of its kind ever discovered on the North American continent.

Ginko-toothed beaked whale, Del Mar, 1953. Today, the animal that Gilmore examined remains the only one of its kind ever discovered on the North American continent.

It isn’t surprising Everett had such a hard time identifying his find. As recently as last year one authority on whales described beaked whales as "the least-known of the world’s large mammals.’’ Several of the largest species have been taken by whalers for decades, but most beaked whales, too small to be of commercial value, have remained elusive, mysterious creatures, almost ocean-going versions of Bigfoot.

Beaked whales resemble giant dolphins, but their closest relatives are sperm whales. They have small flippers and a prominent snout or beak, used to snatch squid and small fish from the water. There are eighteen species in all, most of them named after the scientists who first discovered them, e g., Baird’s beaked whale, Andrews’ beaked whale — a confusing and rather annoying way of labeling animals that have survived for centuries virtually unnoticed by man.

The largest species is the Baird’s beaked whale, at forty-two feet as large as many gray whales. Next in size are the goose-beaked (or Cuvier’s) and the bottlenose whales, which can reach lengths of twenty-six feet. All of these whales have been hunted by whalers, and in the late Nineteenth Century, one Norwegian captain reported that a harpooned bottlenose whale remained underwater for two hours on a single dive — an unconfirmed record for all cetaceans.

The smaller beaked whales are the least known, and average a little under twenty feet in length (the biggest dolphins are only twelve feet long). They are thought to be shy, deep-diving animals of the open ocean, which could account for the fact they’re rarely seen in the wild. That they exist at all is known mainly from carcasses and skulls that wash up on beaches, and even this doesn’t happen too often.

In Southern California, beaked whales were practically unheard of until July 25, 1945, when a dying animal was seen in the surf just south of Scripps Pier in La Jolla. “About seven men went into the surf late that night, attached a rope to the creature’s tail, and pulled it ashore amid wild thrashing,’’ wrote Carl Hubbs, who preserved the animal's skeleton and later sent it to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Although Hubbs identified the whale as the little-known Andrews’ beaked whale, the skeleton was re-examined nearly twenty years later and pronounced a new species, Hubbs’ beaked whale.

In a bizarre footnote to the discovery, Hubbs and a few others sampled the meat of the whale, probably one of the few times in recent history humans have dined on an animal previously unknown to the world. It was “of good flavor and tender when roasted or fried,’’ Hubbs reported. ‘ ‘About one hundred pounds were eaten by local residents. This addition to the war-rationed meat supply was much enjoyed. ”

In 1953 another unusual beaked whale washed ashore in Del Mar. Dr. Ray Gilmore, a whale expert at the natural history museum, examined this carcass, couldn't identify it, and preserved its flukes, flippers, and tail in the museum to be studied later. Before anyone got around to it, though, the Japanese found a similar animal off their own coast in 1958 and described it as a new species, the ginko-toothed beaked whale. Today, the animal that Gilmore examined remains the only one of its kind ever discovered on the North American continent.

Over the next twenty years, only a few beaked whales washed ashore in all of Southern California. But in the mid- and late-1970s, an unusual series of beaked whale standings took place along San Diego County beaches. In 1974 a dying Hubbs’ beaked whale stranded itself at midday at crowded Ocean Beach; and between 1975 and 1979, four Hector's beaked whales, a species never before found in the Northern Hemisphere, were discovered on beaches at Camp Pendleton, Carlsbad, and Torrey Pines.

“I don’t have a clue as to why there were so many strandings in that period of time," Dr. James Mead of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., said in a telephone interview recently. "I wish I did." Mead has spent most of his life studying beaked whales, particularly the smaller and more obscure species, and he is probably the world's foremost expert on them. As luck would have it, he was in San Diego in September, 1978, when a dead male Hector's beaked whale was discovered on a Carlsbad beach. Mead examined the two-day-old, wave-battered carcass, identified it, and cut out its skeleton himself to preserve it for further study.

Based on these strandings and others. Mead says, scientists are beginning to get a clearer picture of the distribution of beaked whales. Three species — Hubbs’, Hector’s, and the goose-beaked — are thought either to live in the waters off Southern California or to migrate here seasonally. Three others — Blainville’s, the ginko-toothed, and the huge Baird’s beaked whale — are sometimes found here, too.

Nevertheless, sightings are rare. In his many years of observing and studying whales, Ray Gilmore has seen beaked whales off the coast of San Diego only a few times. His best look, he says, came in the early 1970s when he was on a fishing vessel about five miles from shore. "A group of five or six came right close by the ship, no more than forty or fifty feet away. The size was right, and I could see the head and beak. They didn’t come out of the water, but they made a high rise, and then they just went on their merry way. They never paid the slightest bit of attention to us."

Gilmore wasn’t able to identify the exact species he was looking at, but even so, for a man who has devoted his life to studying whales, it was a special moment. "I had seen beaked whales before, but I had never had such a good look at them," he says. "Needless to say, I was very happy."

Probably the best sighting ever, though, took place in July, 1976, about eight miles east of Catalina Island. Don Ljungblad, a scientist at the Naval Oceans Systems Center (NOSC) on Point Loma, was out in a small powerboat tagging pilot whales for a NOSC project when he saw two whales about one hundred yards away. “We didn’t even have to change direction,” he remembers. “We came up alongside them and we could see they were beaked whales. The unusual thing was that they didn’t dive and disappear forever, the way beaked whales usually do. They started following the boat.”

Ljungblad (pronounced Youngblood) dropped a sonobuoy — a sound transmitter — into the water, which seemed to interest the whales. They approached it again and again while Ljungblad snapped about seventy photos. “I was excited,” he admits. “And of course your camera always craps out at the worst time, so I missed getting pictures of them when they breached — twice.

“But they stuck with us like glue for about a half hour One of them was on the left side of the boat, and he would sort of roll over from time to time. He gave me the impression he was trying to look up. ” Finally, Ljungblad says, the whales dove deep and never appeared again.

Ljungblad estimates that the whales were twenty-five feet long, and one of them had long scars on its back — characteristic of many male beaked whales and thought to be inflicted during the mating season, when the toothed animals vie with each other. His photos were later examined by James Mead, who identified the whales as Hector’s beaked whales, making Ljungblad the first person ever to see this species in the wild.

Even though beaked whales are rarely seen at sea, many experts think they might be more common than the sheer number of sightings would indicate. “It seems strange they 're so rarely encountered in the wild, because, of course, somehow boy meets girl out there and they get their business done,” Ray Gilmore says with a chuckle. “Perhaps they’re seen more often but not identified properly — people think they’re just big dolphins or something else.”

Steve Leatherwood, a research associate with the Hubbs/Sea World Research Institute and one of the world’s foremost authorities on whales, agrees. “One wonders if beaked whales are really rare or just hard to detect,” he muses. “They are mysterious. Most of the time when you see them they ’re just ephemeral little wisps moving at the surface; you’re not even sure what you’ve seen.”

Leatherwood has seen beaked whales in various parts of the world while doing population surveys of other whales for Hubbs/Sea World and several federal agencies, and he says he’s beginning to think they might travel together in families of related animals. Beaked whales are nearly always seen in pairs or small groups, he points out, and a few years ago, off the coast of Mahe Island in the Indian Ocean, he saw a group of four Shepherd’s beaked whales swimming in a pattern that suggested a family. The largest whale (presumably a male, Leatherwood says) was out in front, while two medium-size whales (probably females) were following with a calf.

Leatherwood also speculates that beaked whales might be responsible for the mysterious “boing” sound that has been heard on the Navy 'i sonar in many parts of the world, but never identified. Beaked whales are thought to use sonar of their own, and Leather-wood and Don Ljungblad once dropped a hydrophone from a helicopter into the water near a group of Blainville’s beaked whales off the west coast Of Hawaii. They heard “boing” sounds clearly, Leatherwood says — an intriguing if inconclusive experiment.

James Mead recalled that when a beaked whale came ashore at Ocean Beach in 1974, it was said to have made one final “boing” sound before it died. “I happened to be in San Diego then, too, at a conference sponsored by the Southwest Fisheries Center in La Jolla. Someone had called NOSC about the stranding, and they finally got hold of Jim Fish [a NOSC researcher], who was with me at the conference. He told me, ‘Jesus, it looks like there’s a beaked whale stranded at Ocean Beach! ’ We jumped in a truck and went right down there.”

The whale was still alive when it first stranded, but by the time Mead and Fish arrived the tide had gone out and the animal lay dead on the sand. “There was a guy from the Navy already there,” Mead remembered. “He was asking the lifeguard questions, and one of the things he asked him was, ‘Did the whale make any sound before it died?’ and the lifeguard said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s one thing I forgot to tell you, it made one sound — kind of a boing sound. ”

Leatherwood explains that it might be advantageous for a herd of beaked whales to remain in acoustic contact with each other through high-energy, broad-frequency sounds such as “boing” sounds. But like almost everything else about beaked whales, not enough is known to make any firm conclusions. Their numbers remain unknown, as do their migration routes and breeding grounds, if they have any. It isn’t known why they strand on beaches, either, although animals both on land and in the sea sometimes seek out a solitary place when they are about to die.

Mead thinks the strandings will provide the best source of knowledge about beaked whales in the future. “I don't see any other way it’s going to be done,” he said with a hint of frustration. “They're hard to even identify in the wild — most of them all look more or less like dark-gray beaked porpoises. But we know so little about beaked whales that we have a great deal to learn from observations of strandings.”

In a way, it seems incredible that mammals some twenty feet long could have survived for so long almost unseen by human eyes. And yet it is just such a creature, solitary and shy, with habits that keep it away from man’s developments and commercial shipping lanes, that would escape detection. Perhaps Bill Everett summed it up best when he said recently, “A lot of people seem to think we know just about everything there is to know about the ocean. But we don’t. We know almost nothing.”

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