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Scientists Hadn't Seen This Elusive Whale Alive - Until Now

It has taken until 2022 for Sato’s beaked whale to be observed alive for the first time.

Three Sato’s beaked whales
Sato’s beaked whales | Credit: Hal Sato (Released)

Sato’s beaked whale has remained elusive for centuries. The Japanese whaling industry hunts its cousin, Baird’s beaked whale, and the whalers have long been aware that there was a species abound in the same waters that was smaller and darker-skinned. For years it was called “Raven” in the Japanese language.

Beaked whales, say the authors of the paper announcing its sighting, are the least-studied of their kind, owing to their low surface profile, long dives, lack of visible blow, general elusiveness, and preference of oceanic shelf or deep ocean habitat.

In 2019, Japanese researches confirmed scientifically its existence using DNA analysis from a deceased individual, but it was two years later when Russian scientists studying killer whales in the choppy waters between their nation and the island of Hokkaido that they found a pod of 14 of the elusive animals.

At 7 meters, or roughly 21 feet in length, it seems crazy that they could remain unseen for so long, but of the 24 species of beaked whale theorized to exist, only 3 are reasonably well-researched.

The sighting was later confirmed by a biopsy performed via crossbow on one of the sighted individuals.

Erich Hoyt, a research fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the UK who co-authored the paper announcing its sighting, told Hakai Magazine that it was some scars on their hide that gave the first clue as to the animal’s behavior.

Hoyt noted the bite marks of cookie-cutter sharks that suggested the whales could be either more widely dispersed or migratory. Cookie-cutter sharks are small fish that inhabit warm tropical waters and who leave a one-of-a-kind bite mark due to their unique jaw shape.

This is critical information since Sato’s beaked whale has only ever been seen around Japan and Russia in waters that are not tropical.

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