If we can find a new species of whale, just think what else could be out there

The beaked whale is among the most mysterious of nature's creatures, and long may it remain so

Share

Remember the London whale? Remember the fuss? Just under seven years ago, in January 2006, a poor leviathan, 16ft long and weighing seven tonnes, was found swimming in the Thames, right in the heart of the capital. I mean, surging right there past the Thames Barrier, and Tower Bridge, and the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament, followed by excited crowds, until it got stuck in Chelsea. A rescue was bravely attempted but the whale died, probably from stress aggravated by starvation, as it was being transported back to sea, amidst national anguish.

The irony was, it was doing the right thing – it was swimming westwards. It had almost certainly taken a wrong left turn in the straits of Dover and ended up in the North Sea and eventually, the Thames estuary, whereas it should have been in the deep waters of the Atlantic where it could find the squid on which to feed; but unfortunately, the route it chose (or was stuck with) meant it would have had to get back to the Atlantic via Maidenhead, Reading and Cirencester.

I’m sure you do remember it; but there’s one thing I bet you can’t remember, and that is, what species of whale was it? To put you out of your misery, I will tell you that it was a northern bottlenose whale, a species from the least known group of the cetaceans – the whales and dolphins – which are the beaked whales.

Leagues under the sea

We all know the baleen whales, which have baleen plates, or giant filters in their mouths to trap plankton, because these 15 or so species include the world’s biggest animals, such as the blue whale and the humpback, and around British coasts, the minke whale. And we all know the toothed whales, because this group of 50-plus species includes all the dolphins and porpoises, and other very familiar creatures such as the sperm whale – Moby Dick in Melville’s epic – and the orca or killer whale, and the white whale, the beluga. 

But the beaked whales are largely a mystery, to zoologists as well as to general wildlife enthusiasts. Cuvier’s beaked whale, Gervais’ beaked whale, Blainville’s beaked whale, Sowerby’s beaked whale – ever heard of any of them? Top of the class if you have. This group of about 20 species is undoubtedly the least-known of all marine mammals, and very likely the least known large mammals on earth, because they spend much of their time at tremendous depths in the ocean, feeding on squid, and are rarely encountered on the surface.

Remains

I have always been fascinated by them, so I was even more fascinated to learn that the rarest of them all has just been seen and described for the first time. This is the spade-toothed whale, Mesoplodon traversii, known for more than a century only from a partial jawbone found in New Zealand, and two subsequent skulls. But two years ago, a cow and a calf were stranded in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. They were originally identified as examples of Gray’s beaked whale; yet subsequent DNA analysis showed that mother and infant were indeed spade-toothed whales, the first complete specimens ever seen. (The finding is reported in the latest edition of the journal Current Biology.)

This is a discovery up there with the finding of the okapi in Central Africa in 1901, or with the discovery of the saola, or Vu Quang ox, in Vietnam in 1992. Those two large, hitherto unknown beasts came from the world’s deepest and most impenetrable jungles. But the deep ocean is infinitely larger than the rainforest, and even more impenetrable, who knows but there may still be great beasts left to discover?

Here’s to the spade-toothed whale. It is heartening to realise that even now, when much of the earth can be mapped on your mobile phone, some of the mystery still remains.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas