We are home. Our research equipment is cleaned, packed, crated off the Pacific Storm, and stored locally or shipped to our various colleagues around the country who collaborated with us on this project. GYREX team members have all scattered to their respective winds (some on the other side of the country), and the Storm is already off on other adventures.
But the science continues. Remember that critical biopsy sample we collected from one of our pair of mystery beaked whales? That was the first thing we took from our vessel. It went straight to our Cetacean Conservation and Genomics laboratory at Hatfield Marine Science Center, and Scott Baker and Debbie Steel immediately went to work. Five days later we had our answer. Our mystery whales are Mesoplodon carlhubbsi. This is the Latin name; the common name is Hubbs’ beaked whale. And our biopsied whale is a female.
Let’s put this into perspective.
In 1945, Carl Leavitt Hubbs, a preeminent American ichthyologist, described a beaked whale found alive in the surf near his office in La Jolla, California. Although misidentified originally, the skull and color pattern were different from any whale previously known to science and it ultimately became recognized as a new species — Hubbs’ beaked whale. But for the next 50 years, it would be known only from specimens found dead on beaches.
Fast forward to 1994. The NOAA research vessel Surveyor was conducting a marine mammal survey off the coast of Oregon, when the science team (including Robert Pitman, GYREX visual survey lead) spotted a group of Hubbs’ beaked whales, identified by the unique color pattern of the adult male. It was the first and only time this species had ever been identified alive in the wild. And it would not be identified alive again — until GYREX.
Meanwhile, acousticians, including GYREX acoustics lead, Jay Barlow, were busy listening to the oceans and recording beaked whale signals. One of these, a distinctive and unique signal previously recorded in 2016 and 2018, was named “BW37V” in a paper published in 2019. And it was on the day of our extraordinary encounter with that pair of mystery beaked whales that our GYREX acoustics team recorded it again! BW37V is Hubbs’ Beaked Whale!
Linking an acoustic call with a visual description of a poorly known whale and confirming the species identification through genetics is an extremely powerful tool. Instantly, we now know a lot more about the at-sea distribution of this rare whale; it occurs everywhere BW37V has been recorded! And our visual sightings will provide guidance for future marine mammal scientists at sea encountering mystery beaked whales at the surface — maybe they too are Hubbs’ beaked whales?!
Science often (most often) is part serendipity. In our case, engine transmission problems forced us to give up on our expedition to the infamous garbage patch of the Eastern Pacific Gyre. But after a quick repair in Newport, we used our remaining sea time to explore the offshore waters of Oregon and solved a mystery in our own backyard (although, perhaps only oceanographers and fishermen would consider 197 miles to be our backyard). This — adversity, challenge, risk, camaraderie, and occasionally, extraordinary discovery — is why I became a marine scientist.
~Lisa T. Ballance