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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Suspicious spouts

Okay, so I'm afraid these are the most marginal photos I've posted so far.  But it's for a good reason!  They *might* be of a very interesting species.  So even if they aren't good pictures, they still offer an introduction to an animal that you may not have heard of and that you, too, can look for when you're near the ocean or especially if you're on a boat (in the North Pacific).

I was casually glancing offshore today from Bodega Head and noticed a whale spout in the distance.  Can you find the small, bushy spout in the photo below?

I didn't give it too much thought at first, assuming it was probably a Gray Whale.  But something didn't seem quite right — the spout didn't seem tall enough and it was angled slightly.  And then I saw several others very close by.  I would guess there were at least 6 different individuals in a very tight group.  There are 2-3 in the photo below.

The next thing that really caught my attention was that the animals seemed to be moving very quickly.  Their low backs just rolled by at the surface, instead of slowly lingering or rising and sinking like a baleen whale such a Gray Whale or Humpback Whale.

The backs were long and slender and appeared to be dark.  They were larger than dolphins, but didn't seem as large as Gray Whales.  You can just barely see one of the backs in the center of the image below.  It looks like a thin dark gray line with the sun reflecting off it.  (Really, it's there!)

When I realized these whales might be interesting, I was so busy trying to see them in my binoculars and take pictures with the camera, that I didn't have time to look at my watch.  I would guess the group was at the surface for about 1 minute or less, and then submerged for about 8 minutes before resurfacing.  I saw them at least 4 different times and the pattern was the same each time.

They appeared to be quite active (see next photo).  One time I saw one spiraling downwards and showing its flukes as it dove under water.

And they were often very close to each other. 

Another clue from my notes:  The whales were pretty far offshore, I'm guessing 1-2 miles, so I didn't have the best views.  I can't really say anything about the dorsal fin, except that I never saw an obvious one, so it was probably small.

So I'm really not sure about the identity of these whales, but I'm wondering if they could have been Baird's Beaked Whales (Berardius bairdii).  I'll never know, as I didn't see enough in the field and the pictures aren't good enough either (as you can tell), but I'll always be suspicious.  They just weren't right for the other more common species of whales and dolphins.  (I can't rule out other species of beaked whales, but these were relatively large animals, and Baird's Beaked Whales are the largest and most commonly seen beaked whales in this area.)

Of beaked whales, Shirihai and Jarrett (2006) say, "Most sightings are very brief and a matter of luck."  They spend most of their time offshore, and are difficult to observe at the surface.  

And I like what Rich Stallcup says about Baird's Beaked Whales: "Baird's are rare, generally shy animals, seldom found near shore...When seen on the surface at a distance (that's often all you get), they may be lying still, resembling logs, or splashing in a small area like a hot-tub party."

You can read more about this unusual species at the American Cetacean Society's web site

P.S.  If you disagree with me, or have other ideas about these mystery whales, let me know, as I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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