Have you ever heard of Migaloo? What about Iceberg? These rare whales often make it into the news—and for good reason. Migaloo is the only-known albino humpback whale and Iceberg is the first white killer whale spotted in the wild.
But while these whales are indeed beautiful and rare, it’s important to note that there are entire species of whales roaming our oceans that deserve just as much attention. Whether they’ve been hunted to near extinction or are offshore and elusive, here are four kinds of whales that you need to know about. After all, the more you know, the more you can help!
How many are left: Unknown
Habitat: South Pacific Ocean
In December of 2010, two whales—an adult female and a male calf—beached themselves on Opape Beach in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. They were originally thought to be Gray’s beaked whales, the most common species of whale to beach in New Zealand. But months later, when DNA researchers analyzed the bodies, they were shocked. The whales were actually spade-toothed beaked whales, one of the rarest whale species. So rare, in fact, that nobody had ever seen one before!
Until that moment, the only bits of evidence that these creatures even existed were 3 bone fragments discovered over the course of 140 years. Scientists know nothing about the behaviour of spade-toothed whales, but because they belong to the beaked-whale family, they’re likely to dive to extreme depths for long periods of time—as deep as 1,899 meters and for as long as 30 minutes or more.
North Pacific Right Whale
How many are left: No more than 50
Habitat: North Pacific Ocean, particularly between 20° and 60° latitude
The North Pacific right whale was virtually wiped out in the 1840s after a decade of commercial whaling. And after the Russians killed another 529 of these whales in the 1960s, the population has failed to recover. (Whalers preferred this species because they were large, slow swimming, and floated when killed.)
Now, the number of North Pacific right whales is in the tens. Sightings are infrequent and scientists don’t know much about them. But as rare as they are, a North Pacific right whale was actually spotted near Victoria BC in October of 2013—only one of two sightings in the region in more than six decades. The whale was spotted with a group of humpbacks, and biologists were able to observe the 16-metre long whale for a total of 17 hours over the course of a few days.
Western Gray Whale
How many are left: Around 120
Habitat: The Sea of Okhotsk (summer) and South China Sea (winter)
Western gray whales were almost hunted to extinction by commercial whalers. Whaling started as early as the 1500s and continued into the mid-20th century. Between 1911 and 1933 alone, nearly 1500 western gray whales were killed. This species was thought to be extinct until the 1980s, when Soviet scientists reported a small remaining group off Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia.
Because of their over-exploitation, we don’t know much about these creatures. But we do know that they continue to face threats. In recent years, several western gray whales have been found dead, entangled and drowned in Japanese fishermen’s nets. And their summer feeding grounds near Sakhalin Island are now home to large-scale offshore oil and gas rigs as well as ongoing seismic testing and underwater noise. The western gray whale population is slowly growing but experts say the death of just one mature female per year could send it back towards extinction.
True’s Beaked Whale
How many are left: Unknown
Habitat: Cold, temperate waters of the North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans
True’s beaked whales have only been positively identified at sea a handful of times, so we don’t know much about their behaviour, reproduction, or migratory patterns. They appear to either travel alone or in small groups of 2–6 animals and are known to breach and occasionally display surface-active behaviors.
The rest of what we know comes from examinations of stranded specimens. Adults can reach lengths of around 17 feet and can weigh up to 3,000 lbs. They feed on squid and cephalopods (e.g., squid) and have flipper pockets (a small depression on each side of the body near the base of the flipper) that are thought to assist with deep dives.
The number of True’s beaked whales is unknown, although they are thought to be quite rare. They aren’t commercially exploited but are at risk of being caught in gillnets. As well, noise pollution and climate change are thought to impact this species.
Here at Eagle Wing Tours, conservation and sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. Get in touch with us to find out more about our passion and commitment to the environment and how we’re working to save the whales. And if you’d like to see us in action, you can always book a whale watching tour!