Marine biologist Olga Filatova and expedition leader Ivan Fedotin set sail in a five-meter boat last summer to National Geographic To investigate orcas in the Kuril Islands between Japan and Russia. “We were no longer able to sail. There was thick fog around us with little visibility. We were waiting for the fog to lift. Then they appeared suddenly, about fifty meters from our boat: a group of Sato’ beaked whales,” Filatova says over the phone. It is one of the least known animal species on Earth to date.
The researchers took pictures to confirm their suspicions that they were Sato’s beaked whales, based on their appearance. Beaked whales also appeared on the second voyage at the beginning of this year. In total, Filatova twice counted these two thirty different copies.
One member of the expedition also managed to take a biopsy by grabbing a piece of skin from a beaked whale with a crossbow and a grab on a long line. Laboratory research recently showed that it was indeed this special species, which was not known to the world until 2019.
It was named after Hal Sato
Japanese whalers mentioned seven-meter-long black-beaked whales, which they named beaked whales. Karasu Gifts, i.e. raven or raven. Sato’s beaked whales are related to Bird’s beaked whale, but are smaller and darker, and have a prominent forehead and a fusiform body.
Also, at the turn of the millennium, Japanese researcher Hal Sato took pictures of beaked whales of unusual appearance and sent them to the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan. In 2019, this resulted in DNA testing of a total of four dead specimens that washed ashore and were of a hitherto unknown species.
The name Sato was attached to this new species of beaked whale, of which two larger species are known in this branch of the beaked whale family. They are actually toothed whales, including dolphins. In Dutch, they are also related to dolphins because their appearance with their long, narrow beak is very similar to what we call dolphins.
Filatova and other members of the expedition were the first to see live-beaked Sato whales and confirm their identity. For centuries this species has managed to stay under the radar of man. “We know very little about this species,” Filatova says. “They are very shy, like many species of whales. They are also difficult to see because they are barely above the surface of the water, which makes them difficult to distinguish from sea water, especially in more rugged waters with high waves in the depths of the sea area.”
Diving in great depths
Beaked whales also have an opening to breathe through. “But, like other whales, they do not shoot a jet of water, so they remain unobtrusive. So it is difficult to notice them. Moreover, they are only above the water for a few minutes and then they dive to great depths in the sea where they stay underwater for twenty to thirty minutes. To search for fish.
It’s best spotted by quietly jumping on a boat in sea water in the hope that it will float near you and you can hear it breathing. Just as it happened to Filatova by chance.
Filatova now knows that Sato’s beaked whales swim in separate groups of males and females. There is no idea of the size of the population and whether they are threatened with their survival, as is the case with many whale species. We know that they are found in the Kuril Islands and the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago located below Alaska. Perhaps their habitat is the North Pacific, but this needs further research.
Filatova says that a new scientific research method is being used for this. Water samples are taken from the oceans and DNA traces are examined using a new technology. In this way it is also possible to identify places where Sato’s beaked whales are most common. This can also provide information about the population size of this species over a longer period of time, because the DNA of individual animals can be identified. This way you don’t have to wait silently and endlessly on the ocean for those whales to appear.
The great thing about looking for DNA in water samples is that it can also detect unknown species of whales, dolphins, and fish. Filatova is convinced that there is still a lot of life in the seas and deep seas that we humans do not yet know about. “With DNA you know it’s there, but then we don’t have a picture of such a newly discovered species; what it looks like then. If dead specimens occasionally wash up ashore, as with Sato’s beaked whale, we can combine the DNA with the appearance” .
In the future, methods for filtering DNA from the water will provide a better view of the biodiversity of marine life. It will be some time before results come out using this revolutionary search method.
Whaling through Japan
Threats abound for the newly discovered Sato’s beaked whale. Whaling in Japan does not appear to pose a significant risk to this species. Whale boats primarily hunt minke whales, which, according to Filatova, does reasonably well, despite her research. “Whale killing has become primarily an ethical dilemma,” she says.
A much greater danger is the long fishing nets that fishermen put in or get lost and float underwater. “Whales and dolphins get entangled in it and then drown. They can no longer go up to inhale in search of air. Cetaceans die more this way than hunting. Filatova explains by phone that the problem of fishermen is greater than that of whaling.
Noise noise is also a big problem. People with their boats make massive noise pollution in the seas, at great depths. As a result, animals such as dolphins and whales become disoriented. Filatova doesn’t know if this also applies to Sato’s beaked whale, but it wouldn’t be inconsequential.
After 20 years of searching for orcas, she now wants to continue her search for Sato’s beaked whales. She hopes to return to the waters around the Kuril Islands next spring.
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