Cuvier's Beaked Whales — Whales That Can Dive Really Deep for a Really Long Time

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Cuvier's beaked whale

Cuvier's beaked whales (Scientific name: Ziphius cavirostris) are sometimes called "goose-beaked whales". They are one of the most frequently sighted species of beaked whales in the world. They are found in most oceans and seas worldwide, and have the most extensive range of all beaked whale species. Cuvier’s beaked whales mainly eat squid and deep water fish. They also eat crabs and starfish. They normally hunt using echolocation and suck creatures into their mouths to eat them. Their lifespan is 60 years. [Source: NOAA]

Cuvier’s beaked whales have stout bodies shaped sort of like torpedoes. Their foreheads slope into a short beak with a slightly upturned mouth — leaving them with dolphin-like “smile”. Their color ranges from gray to a reddish-brown to a pale white. Males appear to have two teeth which they use for fighting, females don't seem to have any. Some males are marked with linear white scars caused by males raking other males with their teeth, perhaps while competing for females. They dive up to 3,000 meters in pursuit of food. When they surface they often spend only about two minutes before diving again, making it hard for researchers to observe and tag them. [Source: Reuters, BBC]

Cuvier’s beaked whales are native to the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean but seldom go north of the 10º isotherm, defined as being the area where the average temperature in the warmest month (July) is below 10ºC ( 50ºF). These whale are deep divers and prefer waters that are more than 1000 meters deep. Cuvier’s beaked whales are usually found in the open ocean but sometimes are found in coastal areas and on or near the sea bottom. [Source: Barbara Lundrigan and Allison Myers, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Cuvier's beaked whales are not endangered. They are designated as a species of least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and have no special status on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which had placed them in Appendix II, which lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction now but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. Cuvier’s beaked whales, like all marine mammals, are currently protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Threats include vessel strikes, ocean noise and entanglement in fishing gear such as gill nets, float lines from lobster traps, and long lines. About 20 individuals are taken by Japanese whalers each year. This is a relatively small number and they are not regularly hunted. /=\

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

Cuvier's Beaked Whale Characteristics

Range of Cuvier's beaked whale

Cuvier’s beaked whales are medium-sized whales. They are 4.6 to 7 meters (15 to 23 feet) in length, with an average body length of 6.4 meters (21 feet). They weigh 1,815 to 3,085 kilograms (4,000 to 6,800 pounds) Their average weight is 3000 kilograms (6608 pounds). Females are usually a little larger than males. Calves are 2.1 meters at birth. [Source: Barbara Lundrigan and Allison Myers, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

According to Animal Diversity Web: Cuvier’s beaked whales has a spindle shaped body that is a little stouter than other ziphiids. They have a small head (about 10 percent of their body length) and a distinct neck. As with all ziphiids, they have two grooves along the throat. They have a stubby beak which is almost indistinct in larger animals and a scooped out hollow behind the blowhole. Adult males have two large teeth on the lower jaw that grow up to eight centimeters. In the females, the teeth never break through the gums. Some individuals have been found with 15-40 vestigial teeth that never erupted. Cuvier’s beaked whales have small rounded flippers that fold into depressions or "flipper pockets" on their flanks. They have a relatively tall fin (40 centimeters) that is shaped like a shark fin. There is a small notch in the center of their broad flukes. /=\

The coloration of Cuvier’s beaked whales varies among individuals. In the Indopacific waters, the whales are often sienna colored, ranging from a dark yellow to a deep brown. Their backs are usually darker than their bellies, but some have a reversed coloration: pale backs with black stomachs. The head is almost always totally white, especially in older males. In the Atlantic waters, Cuvier’s beaked whales have a grey blue color, often with the same pale head coloration. They have dark spots around the eye. Juveniles are usually lighter than adults. /=\

Cuvier's Beaked Whale Behavior and Reproduction

Cuvier’s beaked whales are motile (move around as opposed to being stationary) and social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups). They sense using touch and chemicals usually detected with smell. [Source: Barbara Lundrigan and Allison Myers, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Cuvier’s beaked whale

Cuvier’s beaked whales usually travel in pods of around 15 individuals though solitary males are occasionally seen. They may breach, but they are often shy of boats. Their rounded heads can be seen during their blow and they swim at the surface taking breaths for about 20 seconds before they dive. They are deep divers and plunge almost vertically down when they dive for 30 minutes or longer. They are often found beached. Some animals have been seen with white oval scars on their belly from lamprey and crustacean (Livoneca ravnaudi) parasites. Adult males often have teeth marks on their beaks and backs, form other males.

Cuvier’s beaked whales are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young that developed in the body of the mother, and engage in year-round breeding. Females give birth to one offspring. The average gestation period is around one year. Both sexes mature at about five meters long. There is thought to be a sex ratio of 67 percent males to 33 percent females. Little is known about the reproduction of this species in part because there does not seem to be a specific breeding season. Calves are born throughout the year.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale — the Deepest Diving Champs

In March 2014, scientists announced that they had tracked a Cuvier’s beaked whale off the coast of California, using satellite-linked tags, that dove down to a depth of three kilometers (nearly 1.9 miles) and spent two hours and 17 minutes underwater before resurfacing. Will Dunham of Reuters wrote: If there were a gold medal for cetacean diving, it undoubtedly would go to the Cuvier’s beaked whale. Its breath-taking accomplishments represent both the deepest and the longest dives ever documented for any marine mammal, said Greg Schorr of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, who led the study published in the journal PLOS ONE. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, March 27, 2014]

“Many creatures live at the depths these whales dive to, including their likely primary prey of squid and fish. However, there is a major difference between these whales and the other creatures living deep in the ocean — the fundamental requirement to breathe air at the surface,” Schorr said. “Taking a breath at the surface and holding it while diving to pressures over 250 times that at the surface is an astounding feat.” By way of comparison, the record for a person holding his breath underwater is 22 minutes, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. A person, of course, would never survive the bone-crushing water pressure at those stupendous depths.

“This species is highly adapted to deep diving, spending less than two minutes at the surface between dives,” Schorr said. “These are social, warm-blooded mammals that have adapted to actively pursue their prey at astounding depths — all while up to 1.8 miles away from their most basic physiological need: air.”

A number of marine mammals are known for their deep-diving abilities. The sperm whale, the largest of the toothed whales, also swims into the ocean depths to find prey. But the deep dives of sperm whales generally are less than six-tenths of a mile and are followed by much longer periods of time spent at the surface, Schorr said. Elephant seals have been documented making incredibly long and deep dives. Until this new data about Cuvier’s beaked whales, the records for deepest and longest dives by a marine mammal had been held by elephant seals — so named because adult males have large noses that look a bit like an elephant’s trunk. Elephant seals have been documented diving to depths of 1.5 miles and staying under water for two hours, Schorr said. But their deep dives are infrequent and followed by a comparatively long recovery time at the surface.

Cuvier’s beaked whale

To track the Cuvier’s beaked whales, the scientists used satellite-linked tags that provided data on the start and end times of a dive and the maximum depth of each dive, as well as the time between dives. The tags were attached to the dorsal fin using two small titanium darts. The scientists tracked eight whales off the coast of Southern California. They were tagged in 2010, 2011 and 2012 roughly 80 miles west of San Diego. They amassed more than 3,700 hours of diving data.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale Stays Underwater Almost Four Hours in One Dive

In September 2020, scientists announced that had recorded a Cuvier’s beaked whale diving and staying for an astounding three hours and 42 minutes. In a published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the BBC reported: “researchers recorded more than 3,600 dives by two dozen Cuvier's beaked whales over a five-year period. “They recorded dives lasting from around half an hour to two hours thirteen minutes, well past the point at which an animal of this size should run out of oxygen. [Source: Matt McGrath, BBC, September 25, 2020]

“But two dives by one individual whale "astounded" the research team. One was almost three hours long, another three hours 42 minutes. “The longest dive for the species was about two and a half hours, so this is the longest for Cuvier's beaked whales, but it's also the longest for any mammal," Dr Nicola Quick, from Duke University told BBC News.

While this one individual was recorded completing these extremely long dives, Dr Quick says her study showed that a large percentage of the animals observed were capable of going under for very long periods. The research team found that there was little relationship between the length of dive and the recovery time needed by the whales before going down once again.

How Cuvier's Beaked Whale Can Stay Submerged for So Long

According to the BBC: “The researchers speculate that the whales might have an extremely slow metabolism, perhaps coupled with larger than average oxygen stores, and an ability to tolerate the build up of lactic acid. “Their body muscles are sort of built differently, from what you maybe would expect from a deep diver," said Dr Quick. “They have sort of smaller brains, and quite a small lung volume. And they have a lot of good muscle tissues that are great for holding oxygen stores, which probably helps them to increase their dive durations." [Source: Matt McGrath, BBC, September 25, 2020]

“Fear may also have played a part in the record dive. This species is vulnerable to killer whales and larger sharks. The whales react to threats by staying underwater as long as possible, until the predators move away. And the deep dive may also have been in response to humans. The record took place some 24 days after exposure to a US Navy active sonar signal, and the researchers excluded them from their data set, as they could potentially have been impacted by the noise.

“The scientists believe that studying these deep diving animals could offer some clues to challenging questions such as cancer in humans. “There's some interest in working with colleagues in oncology in Duke University, and even with Covid, as that involves cells losing oxygen or being in hypoxic conditions," said Dr Quick. “So if these whales are in these hypoxic conditions in their tissues, and if we can find out what they were doing, then could that have some other implication for human health or just ocean health in general?"

Threats to Large and Deep-Diving Beaked Whales

Cuvier’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.

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.

According to the BBC: “Cuvier's beaked whales are known to be sensitive to sonar and other experts believe that this may have had an impact on the dive length. “The recorded dive time of more than three hours is likely not typical, and instead the result of an individual pushed to its absolute limits," said Nicola Hodgkins from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who was not involved with the study. “Only one whale, thought to already be compromised as a result of being exposed to extremely high levels of noise from military sonar, and therefore showing abnormal behaviour, was recorded undertaking such extreme dives." [Source: Matt McGrath, BBC, September 25, 2020]

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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