Sea Shepherd Research Mission Discovers Possible New Species of Whale in Mexico

Scientists and conservationists capture footage of an unidentified whale species in the waters north of the San Benito Islands.

Ensenada, BCN, Mexico – Dec. 8, 2020 – Researchers working with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society believe that they have discovered a previously unknown species of whale off the western coast of Mexico.

On the morning of November 17, scientists on board Sea Shepherd vessel Martin Sheen observed three beaked whales surfacing in nearby waters. The sightings occurred 100 miles north of Mexico’s San Benito Islands, a group of three remote islands located approximately 300 miles from the US border. 

The expedition, led by renowned beaked whale researchers Dr. Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa from the Marine Mammal Research Group of CONANP, Dr. Jay Barlow, and Dr. Elizabeth Henderson, Leader of the Whale Acoustic Reconnaissance Program of NIWC PAC in collaboration with Sea Shepherd’s Scientific Department, aimed to study the cetaceans present in the waters surrounding the San Benito Islands. The team set forth to identify a beaked whale species associated with an unidentified acoustic signal previously recorded in the area. 

Possibly a new species of Beaked whale | Credit: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd

Scientists and Sea Shepherd crew captured photographs and video recordings of the animals and deployed a specialized underwater microphone to record the acoustic signals emitted by the whales. The beaked whale experts, who are leading figures in their field, are “highly confident” that the photographic and acoustic evidence reveals the presence of an entirely new whale species. Environmental genetic sampling, performed at the time of the sighting, is undergoing analysis and is expected to prove the existence of this new species definitively. 

“We saw something new. Something that was not expected in this area, something that doesn’t match, either visually or acoustically, anything that is known to exist,” said Dr. Jay Barlow. “It just sends chills up and down my spine when I think that we might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible – finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science.”

Beaked whales, like all cetaceans, emit distinct acoustic echolocation signals under the water. These sounds are unique to each species and can reliably identify the types of beaked whales present in the area.

The Martin Sheen sits off in another location scanning for the Beaked whales
Credit: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd

In 2018, scientists recorded an unknown acoustic signal in the waters north of the San Benito Islands. The signal, known as BW43, had been previously detected off the coast of California, and scientists believe that it might be the sound of Perrin’s beaked whale.

Perrin’s beaked whale is one of 23 known species of beaked whales found in oceans around the world. No confirmed live sightings of Perrin’s beaked whales exist, and its population size and geographic range are unknown.

The animal documented on this expedition is a beaked whale, but it is not Perrin’s beaked whale or any other known species. The acoustic signal emitted by the unknown species is not BW43 or any other sound known to science. Initial analysis indicates the physical characteristics of the sighted whales do not match Perrin’s or any other known species of beaked whale. Researchers believe that the animals observed on this expedition are a newly identified species.

“Sea Shepherd strongly believes in the critical role that scientific research plays in supporting strong conservation action. To properly protect something, you have to love it; and you cannot love that which you do not know. The discovery of a new species of beaked whale proves how much mystery there is left to discover in the oceans that our captains, crews, and research partners fight to defend,” said Peter Hammarstedt, Director of Campaigns for Sea Shepherd.

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