A First Look at a Never-Before Seen Whale
One winter morning about two years ago, marine mammal scientist Anton van Helden was driving hell-for-leather up to the far north of New Zealand. A thirteen-and-a-half hour haul would take him to the beach where the first pygmy killer whale to strand itself in New Zealand was lying, and he wasn’t going to miss the chance to collect the skeleton and perhaps tissue samples for the Museum of New Zealand, where he worked. Partway through the drive, he got a call.
Two beaked whales had been found dead at a place called Opape Beach. “They sounded for all the world like Gray’s beaked whales,” he recalls, a species that washes up relatively frequently on New Zealand’s shores, which sometimes see several hundred whale beachings per year thanks in part to the nation’s long coastline. “Maybe you can bury them,” he said to the conservation department employee at the other end of the line, “and we’ll have a look later, just to be sure.”
Van Helden gave the matter little thought until a few months had passed and his phone rang one morning before he had even gotten out of bed. It was Rochelle Constantine, a marine biologist at the University of Auckland, and her graduate student Kirsten Thompson, who had conducted routine DNA analyses on the beached whales. “I hope you’re sitting down,” Constantine said. Those animals stranded in December were not Gray’s. They were instead a pair of spade-toothed beaked whales. It was a name to make a certain kind of scientist weak in the knees: the most elusive species of whale in the world, known only from several bone fragments washed up over the course of 140 years. It had never been seen in the flesh before. Van Helden looked up at the ceiling and swore.