Cetacean Society International

Working for whales, dolphins and porpoises worldwide

CSI Photo Gallery

Cuvier's Beaked Whale

(Ziphius cavirostris)

The Cuvier's beaked whale, or goose beaked whale, is small (8 feet 10 inches / 2.7 m), rarely very active at the surface, and easily confused with others species. Perhaps that's why few scientists and ardent whale watchers have ever seen the Cuvier's, much less any beaked whale species. Cuvier's beaked whales live in all but the cold-water oceans, and there is evidence that some are vulnerable to human activities. This surfacing adult female's head is characteristically pale, with a dark body. Cookie-cutter sharks, a parasitic species, cause the oval scars by tearing chunks of flesh from the living whale, and many other creatures, by biting and twisting. In beaked whales these scars accumulate over time rather than fading. Such marks help scientists identify individuals, which provides enormous insight into their nearly unknown lives. (Photo courtesy Colin D. MacLeod, UK)
This adult female Cuvier's beaked whale also shows the pale head and dark body, with the typical dorsal fin two-thirds of the way along the back. Calves are generally darker above and lighter below, which makes sense if counter shading provides visual protection as the baby is left at the surface for perhaps 40 minutes while the mother feeds far below. Do Cuvier's whales use others in the group as babysitters? How does a surfacing mother whale find her baby or group again? Do Cuvier's beaked whale's make social sounds to keep together? Do different groups make different sounds? Body coloration is variable, according to location, sex and age. Such differences may help scientists understand group composition and behavior, if more groups can be found to study. (Photo courtesy Colin D. MacLeod, UK)
One population of Cuvier's beaked whale that was being studied, including underwater videos and photo ID's, disappeared from their Bahamas location immediately after a U.S. Navy task force using "normal" sonars passed by in March 2000. Some of them were found stranded, dead or dying. Research on the stranded whales showed how sonars could harm and kill cetaceans, and perhaps many marine organisms. Under certain conditions Navy sonars' complex vibrations tear internal tissues near air cavities, and cause bleeding, disorientation, and death. Previous mass strandings of Cuvier's beaked whales seem also to have been associated with operating naval sonars, for example in the Mediterranean in 1996. If military sonars can cause mass strandings, how many other whales have died without reaching shore? The whales that survive those sounds must learn to fear them even when very far away, perhaps stopping significant and necessary behaviors, as naval sonars are in use every day in all the oceans. (Photo courtesy Colin D. MacLeod, UK)
The head of this male Cuvier's beaked whale is typically pale, with a short beak and facial profile. Adult males have two teeth facing up and forward at the tip of the lower jaw. Females and juveniles don't have erupted teeth. The teeth are the equivalent of deer's antlers, used only for display and conflicts. The scars on this young male's back came from such fights, but that's almost all we know about their social behavior. We know so little! For many years the only way to tell beaked whale species apart was the size and location of the teeth in males, some were known only from bones, and everyone still expects more species to be discovered. (Photo courtesy Martin Smith, USA)
Beaked whales dive well over a thousand feet down, over and over, day after day, to catch squid and other creatures that live where the noonday sun may not penetrate. How hard is it to swim so far down or up, and how do the whales tell which way is "up" in deep blackness? Their small pectoral fins fit into depressions in the sides, perhaps to be more streamlined during long, coasting dives or ascents. The grooves on the whales' throats may allow rapid expansion, to suck soft prey into their mouths, but how easy is it to echolocate and approach a soft-bodied, fast moving squid? Cuvier's beaked whales have been seen breaching vertically out of the water, perhaps because the whales were swimming straight up, really needing a breath after feeding far below for more than the normal 20-40 minutes. Or maybe they were playing or communicating. (Photo courtesy Martin Smith, USA)