2014-01-03 / Nature

Rare True’s Beaked Whale Washes Up on Cliff Walk

By Jack Kelly

Newport’s historic Cliff Walk has garnered much attention in the past two weeks from marine biologists, naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts due to the presence of an extremely rare whale carcass that washed ashore. The body was first sighted on Dec. 18, but was not identified until recently because of its rarity. According to Skip Graf, Assistant Stranding Coordinator of the Marine Animal Rescue Program at Mystic Aquarium, “Small whales of this type are difficult to identify immediately and we work very diligently to establish identity. After careful examination and consultation with whale experts, we were able to identify it as a True’s Beaked Whale. University of Rhode Island marine biologist and North Atlantic whale expert Dr. Bob Kenney assisted us in the identification. This is only the fourth beaked whale that we have seen and only the second True’s Beaked Whale that has come ashore in Connecticut or Rhode Island in the history of the aquarium.”

A True’s Beaked Whale can be identified by two small teeth at the tip of the lower jaw which are visible only in the male even when the mouth is closed. Inset: This whale has been identified as an older adult male. (Photos by Jack Kelly) A True’s Beaked Whale can be identified by two small teeth at the tip of the lower jaw which are visible only in the male even when the mouth is closed. Inset: This whale has been identified as an older adult male. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The True’s Beaked Whale was first identified, described and classified in 1913 by Frederick W. True, a curator at the United States National Museum (now the Smithsonian). True joined an expedition to the Outer Banks, Bird Island Shoal near Beaufort, N. C. to examine an unknown whale in July of 1912. Upon examination, True realized that this species was distinctly different from other medium-sized whales and was not a member of any known beaked whale genus.

Even after 100 years, very little is known about the populations of this species, their habits and behaviors, or more than basic biology. What is known is derived from limited scientific observations far at sea and stranded or dead animals. What marine biologists have ascertained is that there are two distinct populations of this genus. Northern whales are present in deep ocean waters of the Atlantic Ocean from North America to the European countries of Ireland and Great Britain and encompassing the waters of the Canary Islands, Bermuda and Florida. The southern population moves from Australia west through the Indian Ocean, past South Africa and as far as the coast of Brazil. The two populations are not known to meet or breed together.

The average True’s Beaked Whale is 15.5-17.5 feet long and weighs between 2,200 and 3,000 pounds. Females may be larger than the males and often will give birth to a single newborn calf approximately 6.5-8 feet long and weighing about 300 pounds. Males of the species can be distinguished from females and juveniles by a pair of teeth visible on the tip of the lower jaw. All members of this species have a straight or slightly curved mouth line. Mature males have linear scarring on the body which may indicate wounds suffered while battling for females during mating rituals. The lifespan of this species is unknown.

Compared to many in the whale genera, it has a relatively small to medium-sized body, is wide and chunky in the middle, and tapered at both ends. It has a moderately short beak and a rounded, sloping head, and a dorsal fin can be seen about two-thirds of the way down its back. The northern population of this species has dark gray or dark brown coloration on the back, tail stock and underside, while the southern population has more white coloration in those same areas.

True’s Beaked Whales observed in the wild are usually alone or in small, closely-associated groups of up to six animals. The whales are difficult to view because of their low profile in the water and their inconspicuous blow when surfacing from deep dives. Some observed behaviors include breaching and other active surface actions, as well as cryptic, skittish behaviors in the presence of potential predators. Biologists believe that True’s whales use suction to feed on small fish and squid in deep waters and may follow the prey through many areas. There does not appear to be any seasonal movements or migrations of the two populations other than following prey.

This species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which makes it illegal to hunt, harass or possess any of these animals. “We will be sending a special team comprised of marine biologists from Mystic, URI, and the U.S. Navy back to the site of the whale’s body to get samples. It is important that the public stay away from the carcass because it is protected by law, but more importantly there are health risks involved in touching or attempting to remove any part of the animal,” Graf said.

To learn more about this unique sea creature or other marine mammals, visit mysticaquarium.org or uri.edu and navigate to the marine biology/oceanography portion of the websites. To report a sick, injured or dead marine mammal, contact local authorities, call the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management at 401- 222-3070, or contact Mystic Aquarium at 860-572-5955, x107.

Jack Kelly, a native

Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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