Guadalupe Island is an outcropping of volcanic rock 150 miles off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. It’s famous as one of the best places in the world to view great white sharks and is a popular location for cage diving.
But in 2006, while shark scientist Mauricio Hoyos was diving off the coast of Guadalupe to study them, he found that he kept encountering a different marine species: the Cuvier’s beaked whale.
Hoyos had a feeling there was something special going on, so he reached out to Gustavo Cardenas-Hinojosa, a scientist at the Coordination for Research and Conservation for Research and Conservation of Marine Mammals at INECC (Instituto Nacional de Ecologia y Cambio Climatico) in Ensenada, and Mexico’s reigning beaked whale expert. Cardenas came to Guadalupe in 2009, and he confirmed Hoyos’ suspicion. The island was teeming with beaked whales in a higher concentration than had ever been seen before.
The Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) is common and is found almost worldwide, with an estimated population of at least 100,000 but that doesn’t mean it is easily spotted. The whale hunts by echolocation and spends most of its time thousands of feet below the surface. Sometime between 2010 and 2012, a tagged Cuvier’s beaked whale set the record for deepest-diving mammal, reaching a depth of 2,992 meters (9,816 feet).
“It's almost surreal,” said Jenny Trickey, an acoustic ecologist in the lab of biologist Simone Baumann-Pickering at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Trickey has been studying beaked whales for the past four years, but she had only ever seen them once in real life—a brief sighting from a boat in Hawaii—until her first trip to Guadalupe last October.
In May Trickey and Cardenas partnered with the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur and Sea Shepherd, a nonprofit marine wildlife conservation organization to complete their second expedition to Guadalupe Island where they studied Cuvier’s beaked whales. At the island, scientists can reliably count on seeing the whales once a day, or more, Trickey said.
“The expeditions are focused specifically on the Cuvier’s beaked whale and trying to collect baseline data on their ecology. There's still so much that we don't know about them,” said Trickey. “In most places of the world it's hard to even find them, let alone be able to work with them or collect much data.”
One of the questions the scientists are trying to answer is whether the island might be a breeding site for the whales. There have been several sightings of mother and calf pairs in the area, and the calves appear very young, so it seems likely they were born at the island. On this most recent expedition, Trickey and Cardenas collected photographic data, including photo IDs for individual animals and skin biopsies for genetic testing.
The May cruise captured another first. Fanch Martin, the captain of the expedition’s ship, R/V Martin Sheen, also captured what is believed to be the first-ever drone footage of a Cuvier’s mother and calf pair.
“The drone footage gives you a new look at the animals,” Trickey said. “They're only at the surface for a couple minutes, and from a boat you can glimpse some of the behavior, but not all of it.”
Trickey also hopes that the video footage will help raise awareness of beaked whales in general. They’re so rarely seen that many people don’t even know they exist.
“Some species have never even been seen alive, so unfortunately a lot of times when you look at a textbook or read an article about a beaked whale it's a picture of a dead animal on a beach,” Trickey said. “I think things like the drone video help people connect with them more, and maybe it will inspire them to go off and do a little Googling, and find out, ‘what is a beaked whale? Why are they important, why haven't I heard about them before?’”
The May expedition was funded by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the PADI Foundation.
– Mallory Pickett