Baird's Beaked Whales and Large Beaked Whales

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Baird's beaked whale

Baird's beaked whales (Scientific name:Berardius bairdii) are the largest beaked whales and the second largest toothed whales after the sperm whale. Reaching lengths of 11 meters (36 feet), they have a distinctive bulging forehead and live only in the North Pacific and are still hunted in waters off Japan. Bottlenose whale males use their massive foreheads to batter one another during battles with rival over females.

Baird's beaked whales, sometimes called giant bottlenose whales, are the largest members of the beaked whale family. Named after renowned naturalist, Spencer F. Baird, they can be found throughout the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas and in U.S. waters off the West Coast from California to Alaska. This species prefers cold, deep, oceanic waters, but may occasionally be found near shore along narrow continental shelves. [Source: NOAA]

There is little information on the abundance of Baird’s beaked whales worldwide because sightings at sea are rare. Overall, the beaked whale family is elusive and shy, and individual species lack any easily discernible physical characteristics to distinguish them from one another. Baird's beaked whales, however, are some of the most commonly sighted beaked whales because of their social behavior and large body size.

Baird’s beaked whales is very similar to their southern relative, Arnoux's beaked whale (Berardius arnuxii), who are also known as the southern four-toothed whale, southern beaked whale, New Zealand beaked whale, southern giant bottlenose whale and southern porpoise whale They may be geographically isolated populations of the same species, but the difference in size suggests that they each deserve species rank The lifespan of Baird’s beaked whale females is 54 years; males, 84 years. Females also mature more slowly than males.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase; Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Baird's Beaked Whale Habitat and Where They Are Found

Baird’s beaked whales are native to the Pacific Ocean. They live in a limited area of the northern Pacific. They can be found in waters near Japan and southern California and as far north as the Bering Sea. They prefer cold water deeper than 1,000 meters (3300 feet). but may occasionally be found near shore along narrow continental shelves. This species is often associated with steep underwater geologic structures such as submarine canyons, seamounts, and continental slopes.

range of Baird's beaked whales

Baird's beaked whales are found throughout the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas (Bering Sea, Sea of Cortez, Sea of Japan, Okhotsk Sea, and occasionally the Gulf of California). In the United States, they inhabit waters off the West Coast from California to Alaska. In the eastern North Pacific, they can be found north of 28° north to the southern Bering Sea, and in the western North Pacific from 34° north to the Okhotsk Sea.

Baird’s beaked whales generally migrate seasonally based on surface water temperature. During summer and fall they are found in or near the waters of the continental slope. From June to August, Baird’s beaked whales can be found in warm waters near Japan and California and near British Columbia in September. In the fall, the whales migrate north towards the Bering Sea and spend their winters in cold water near the Aleutian islands. Between October and April, Baird's beaked whales have been observed in the nearshore waters of the Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea. They move farther offshore during winter and spring when sea temperatures have decreased. Little is known of this species' wintering grounds. There are two stocks of Baird’s beaked whale: in U.S. waters: 1) the Alaska stock and 2) the California-Oregon-Washington stock. Because of the uncertainty regarding their migration patterns and variable distribution, these two stocks may overlap. Their movements may be due to seasonal distribution of squid. [Source: NOAA]

Baird's Beaked Whale Physical Characteristics

Baird's beaked whales are the largest members of the beaked whale family (Ziphiidae). Females reach lengths of about 11.2 meters (36.75 feet), while males are slightly smaller at about 10.6 meters (35 feet). Adults, can weigh up to approximately 12 tonnes (13.2 US tones, 12,000 kilograms 26,455 pounds. Baird's beaked whales are endothermic (use their metabolism to generate heat and regulate body temperature independent of the temperatures around them) and homoiothermic (warm-blooded, having a constant body temperature, usually higher than the temperature of their surroundings). [Source: NOAA, Barbara Lundrigan and Allison Myers, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Baird's beaked whales have a large, long, robust body with a relatively small, rounded, triangular 30-centimeter-tall dorsal fin that is located far down their back. They also have a curved head with a bulbous forehead (known as a melon); a distinct, long, cylindrical beak; a curved mouth line; and a crescent-shaped blowhole. Adults of both sexes have two relatively small but visible teeth that protrude from the front of their lower jaw, which extends beyond the upper jaw. Their pectoral flippers are short, round, and untapered, folding against their body. Baird's beaked whales are generally a mottled grayish and/or brownish color, and their underside may be paler with random white patches.

The Baird's beaked whale lower jaw extends about 10 centimeters beyond the tip of the the upper jaw. Their blow hole is low and wide. Their heads are angled backwards when they breathe so that their front teeth and beaks are visible. Baird’s beaked whales have two pairs of teeth, the first pair protruding nine centimeters from the extended lower jaw. The second pair is roughly 20 centimeters behind the first and grow to about five centimeters. The teeth of the female are slightly smaller than those of the male.

Baird’s beaked whales are a blueish grey color, often with a brown tinge. Their undersides are usually lighter with three patches of white on the throat, between the flippers, and near the navel and anus. These spots range in size from barely visible to an almost continuous stripe across the belly. Two grooves run along the underside of the jaw in a wishbone shape. Females tend to be lighter in color than males. Baird’s beaked whales have natural parasites such as ship barnacles, acorn barnacles, and whale lice. Oval sucker scars caused by parasite crustaceans (Livoneca ravnaudi) can be seen on many individuals. Adult males may seem lighter because of heavy grayish-white scarring from scratching and raking other males with their small front teeth. Predation from killer whales may also be responsible for some of these scars. Other coloration, such as a greenish-brown shade, may be the result of whale lice infestation or diatoms (a type of algae) on the skin. Baird's beaked whales produce rapid, low, bushy blows when exhaling at the water’s surface.

Baird's beaked whale

Baird's Beaked Whale Behavior and Diving

Baird's beaked whales are motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups), and have dominance hierarchies (ranking systems or pecking orders among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates). They sense using touch and chemicals usually detected with smell. These whales are fairly elusive and shy of ships, though they sometimes bask at the surface until startled. They are sometimes found stranded. [Source: Barbara Lundrigan and Allison Myers, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Baird's beaked whales are usually found in tight social groups (schools or pods) averaging between five and 20 individuals, but they have occasionally been seen in larger groups of up to 50 animals. Baird’s beaked whale breeding groups are led by one large male. The scars on the beaks and backs of males suggest aggression and rivalry for this leadership position [Source: NOAA]

Like other beaked whales, Baird's beaked whales can make long, deep dives. Typical dives last from 11 to 30 minutes, but beaked whales have been recorded diving for more than an hour; the longest known Baird’s beaked whale dive lasted 67 minutes. Beaked whales commonly dive to depths of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). The deepest known dive for a beaked whale was 3,000 meters (three kilometers, ,840 feet, nearly 2 miles) and lasted 138 minutes! Baird's beaked whales usually rise three to four times at 10 to 20 second intervals before diving for 20 minutes or longer. At the surface, they can sometimes be seen logging (resting), continuously blowing, breaching, or displaying various other behaviors between dives for as long as 14 minutes.

Baird's Beaked Whale Feeding and Reproduction

Baird's beaked whales are deep divers that feed primarily on squid, particularly arctic squid (Gonatus fabricii) when the are in their winter feeding grounds. They also eat octopus, lobster, crab, rockfish, and herring. Occasionally they eat starfish and sea cucumbers. Baird's beaked whales generally feed between depths of 760 to 1,220 meters (2,500 and 4,000 feet) on deep-sea and open-ocean species of fish such as, mackerel, sardines, and saury. [Source: NOAA, Barbara Lundrigan and Allison Myers, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Baird's beaked whales are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young that developed in the body of the mother, and engage in seasonal breeding. A female usually produces one calf every three years. The breeding season is mid-summer in warm waters near Japan and California. Typically one calf is born. The gestation period is as long as 17 months. The average gestation period is 10 months.. /=\

Baird's beaked whales

Most Baird’s beaked whales reach sexual maturity when they are about 9.4 meters (31 feet) long for males and 10 meters (33 feet) long for females. Female Baird's beaked whales reach sexual maturity at 10 to 15 years versus 6 to 11 years for males. On average females reach sexual maturity at age 12 years. On average males reach sexual maturity at 8 years. A sexually mature female or cow gives birth to a single calf that is about 4.2 meters (15 feet long), usually between the months of March and April. [Source: NOAA]

Northern Bottlenose Whales

Northern bottlenose whales (Scientific name: Hyperoodon ampullatus) are the largest members of the beaked whale family in the North Atlantic Ocean, where they prefer cold, deep, temperate to sub-arctic oceanic waters. Their scientific name is derived from the Latin word ampulla for the bottle shape of their beak. They weigh Up to 7,500 kilograms (16,534 pounds) and reach 36.7 feet in length. Their lifespan is At least 37 years.[Source: NOAA]

Northern bottlenose whales are the most extensively studied of the beaked whales because they used to be heavily hunted, making carcasses available for scientists to examine. They are generally found in waters greater than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) are often associated with steep underwater geologic structures such as submarine canyons, seamounts, and continental slopes. Northern bottlenose whales can be found throughout the North Atlantic Ocean and range from New England, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, England, and Europe up to Spitzbergen and down to the Azores and northern Africa (Canary Islands). They have been sighted from 30° nNorth to close to the ice edge in the Arctic. Scientists have conducted long-term studies of a resident group off of Nova Scotia (a large submarine canyon called the “Gully”), and strandings have occurred in the Baltic Sea, Bay of Fundy, and Rhode Island. This species can travel more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).

Fishermen discovered spermaceti (a waxy substance used in oil lamps, lubricants, and candles) in northern bottlenose whales in the 1850s, which started a commercial whaling fishery for the species. The species was also hunted for pet food. Whalers exploited the curiosity and social bonds of these animals, which were often attracted to stationary vessels and stayed with wounded or injured members of their pod. The fishery closed in the 1970s. During this time, whalers killed more than 80,000 northern bottlenose whales.

northern bottlenose whale

For the last several decades, northern bottlenose whales have remained unexploited, except for the animals killed in the Faroe Islands drive fishery. In Canada and Norway, these whales were hunted for meat and oil until the population was depleted. Although they were easy targets for whalers long ago and currently face threats from human-caused noise, northern bottlenose whales in the United States are not endangered or threatened. Like all marine mammals, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants.

Northern Bottlenose Whale Characteristics and Behavior

Northern bottlenose whales have a large, long, robust body with a small, triangular, hooked dorsal fin that is located about two-thirds down their back. They have a distinctive, bulbous forehead (known as a melon) that is lighter in color and a well-defined, bottle-shaped beak; however, these characteristics may vary with sex and age. The melon becomes steeper and flatter as the whale ages. Adult males have a pair of relatively small, conical teeth that angle slightly forward and are visible on the tip of the lower jaw. A second pair of teeth is sometimes hidden in the gums behind the exposed pair of teeth, and 10 to 20 additional vestigial teeth can be found in the gums of the upper and lower jaw. Males may be slightly larger than females. [Source: NOAA]

While at the ocean surface, northern bottlenose whales produce fairly small, bushy blows every 30 to 40 seconds that are about one meter (3.3 feet) tall and visible from a significant distance. Their coloration varies from dark gray to brownish to olive, and their skin may appear lightly mottled and covered with scars and/or other markings. The dorsal side is darker than the ventral side, giving it a counter-shading appearance. The face and melon often appear light gray or white.

Northern bottlenose whales are usually found individually or in social groups averaging between four and 10 individuals, but they have been occasionally seen in larger groups and loose aggregations of up to 50 animals. Groups may consist of various combinations and/or be segregated depending on age, sex, or life stage. Males are known to be combative, using their large heads to hit one another.

northern bottlenose whales

Regular dives of northern bottlenose whales range from less than 10 minutes to 60 minutes, commonly reaching depths of at least 795 to 1,525 meters (2,600 to 5,000 feet), but they are likely capable of diving and holding their breath for up to 2 hours. While diving, they feed near the ocean bottom mostly on deep-sea cephalopods (such as, squid), fish, shrimp, sea cucumbers, and sea stars. Juvenile animals may feed on prey closer to the surface.

Northern bottlenose whales reach sexual maturity between 7 and 11 years. A sexually mature female will give birth to a single calf every 2 or more years during the spring or summer (usually between the months of April and August). Gestation lasts about 12 months. Newborn calves are about 3.5 to 3.8 meters (10 to 11.5 feet) in length and weigh 300 kilograms (660 pounds).

Threats to Large and Deep-Diving Beaked Whales

Baird’s beaked whales are listed “ Data Deficient” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) places them in Appendix II, which lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction now but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. They are protected throughout their range under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Although they face a number of threats they are not listed as endangered in the United States or listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. There is little information on their numbers because sightings at sea are rare. Threats include entanglement in fishing gear, commercial whaling, ocean noise, marine debris and predation by orcas. These may die after ingesting fishing line, balloons, plastic bags, plastic pieces, or other plastic debris which they can mistake for food. [Source: NOAA]

Entanglement in Fishing Gear: Baird’s beaked whales can become entangled in fishing gear, either swimming off with the gear attached or becoming anchored. They can become entangled in many different gear types, particularly in the in the California/Oregon drift gillnet fishery. Once entangled, whales may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury, which may lead to reduced reproductive success and death.

Commercial Whaling: Historically, at least 4,000 Baird's beaked whales were hunted by commercial whalers in the North Pacific Ocean, mainly by Japan, though also by Russia, Canada, and the United States. Commercial whalers in Japan still hunt Baird’s beaked whales. Baird’s beaked whale have been hunted by Japanese coastal whalers for a long time. In the 1950s, with the help, of new fishing technologies, they took up to 382 whales each year. With declining numbers and emphasis on other species, the number of Baird’s beaked whales caught declined but they continue to be hunted. [Source: Barbara Lundrigan and Allison Myers, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Ocean Noise: Deep-diving small whales like Baird's beaked whales and Cuvier's beaked whales use sound to feed, communicate, and navigate in the ocean. Sound pollution threatens them by interrupting their normal behavior and driving them away from areas important to their survival. Sources of sound pollution include noise from shipping vessels, military sonar, and sonar used for seismic exploration.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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