Baird’s beaked whales, sometimes called “giant bottlenose whales,” are the largest members of the beaked whale family (Ziphiidae). Females reach lengths of about 40 ft (13 m), while males are slightly smaller at about 35 ft (11.5 m). As adults, Baird’s beaked whales can weigh approximately 26,400 lbs (12,000 kg). Females may mature slower and have a considerably shorter lifespan than males, 54 to 84 years, respectively.
Baird’s beaked whales have a large, long, robust body with a relatively small, rounded, triangular dorsal fin that is located far down (about two-thirds) the animal’s back. The whale’s head is curved with a bulbous “melon” (forehead); a distinct, long, cylindrical beak; a curved mouth line; and a crescent shaped blowhole. Adults of both sexes have two, relatively small, but visible protruding teeth on the front of their lower jaw, which extends beyond the upper jaw. Their pectoral flippers are short, round, untapered, and fold against the body. Baird’s beaked whales’ bodies generally appear a mottled grayish and/or brownish in color, and the ventral side may be paler with random white patches. Males may seem lighter due to heavy scarring. Adult males scratch and rake one another using their small front teeth leaving visible grey/white linear scars along their body. Predation from killer whales may also be responsible for some of these scars. Other coloration may be the result of whale lice infestation and “diatoms” on the skin’s surface. While at the ocean surface, Baird’s beaked whales can be seen producing bushy blows that are visible from a significant distance.
Many species of beaked whales (especially those in the genus Mesoplodon) are very difficult to distinguish from one another (even when dead). At sea they are challenging to observe and identify to the species level due to their cryptic, skittish behavior, a low profile, and a small, inconspicuous blow at the waters surface; therefore, much of the available characterization for beaked whales is to genus level only. Uncertainty regarding species identification of beaked whales often exists because of a lack of easily discernable or apparent physical characteristics.
Baird’s beaked whales are usually found in tight social groups (schools or pods) averaging between 2-20 individuals, but have been occasionally seen in larger groups of up to 50 animals. Like other beaked whales, Baird’s beaked whales are deep divers. Regular dives range from 11-30 minutes, commonly reaching depths of 3,300 ft (1,000 m). However, Baird’s beaked whales could be capable of diving as far down as 9,840 ft (3,000 m) and may hold their breath for an hour or longer (max at least 67 minutes). While diving, they generally feed between depths of 2,500-4,000 ft (800-1,200 m) on deep-sea and “pelagic” fish (e.g., mackerel, sardines, and saury), crustaceans, sea cucumbers as well as cephalopods (e.g., squid and octopus). When at the surface, they will remain logging (resting), continuously blowing, breaching, or displaying various other behaviors between dives for as long as 14 minutes.
Baird’s beaked whales reach sexual maturity at 10-15 years for females and 6-11 years for males. A sexually mature female or cow will give birth to a single calf that is about 15 ft (4.6 m) in length, usually between the months of March and April after an estimated gestation period of 12-17 months. Females calve every 3 or more years.
Baird’s beaked whales prefer cold deep oceanic waters 3,300 ft (1,000 m) or greater, and may occur occasionally near shore along narrow continental shelves. This species is often associated with steep underwater geologic structures such as submarine canyons, seamounts, and continental slopes.
Baird’s beaked whales occur throughout the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas (Bering Sea, Sea of Cortez, Sea of Japan, Okhotsk Sea, and occasionally in the Gulf of California), and can be found in U.S. waters off the West Coast from California to Alaska. In the eastern North Pacific, they can be found north of 28° N to the southern Bering Sea, and in the western North Pacific from 34° N to the Okhotsk Sea. They generally migrate seasonally due to the temperature of surface waters, and during summer and fall they are found in or near the waters of the continental slope. Between April and October, Baird’s beaked whales been observed in the nearshore waters of the Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea. They will move farther offshore during winter and spring when sea temperatures have decreased. Little or nothing is known of this species’ wintering grounds. Because of the uncertainty regarding their migration patterns and variable distribution, the two stocks off the U.S. west coast may overlap.
For management purposes, Baird’s beaked whales inhabiting U.S. waters have been divided into two stocks: the Alaska stock and the California/Oregon/Washington stock. No population estimates exist for the Alaska stock due to unavailable data. It is estimated that there are between 150-250 animals off the U.S. west coast (California/Oregon/Washington stock) and 7,000 in the western Pacific Ocean. These numbers are subject to change due to the seasonal movements of these animals in the U.S. EEZ. There is little information on the abundance of this species due to the rarity of sightings at sea and data are insufficient to estimate population trends.
This species was part of a historical commercial whaling industry off the waters of the U.S. West coast, Canada, and Russia. At least 4,000 Baird’s beaked whales were taken in the North Pacific before 1987, but mainly from Japanese waters. The Japanese began targeting Baird’s beaked whales in the 1600s, with the number of individuals killed annually peaking above 300 in 1952 (Jefferson et al., 2008). However, catch statistics before the mid-1970s are not correct and are over reported as they contain undersized sperm whales counted as Baird’s beaked whales (Kasuya, 2007). Much smaller numbers were been taken by Russia, Canada and the U.S. during the 20th century (Reeves et al., 2002). Since 1987, at least 1,000 Baird’s beaked whales have been hunted in Japanese waters. Catches of this species still continue today, Japan has a national quota of 60 takes from their waters (2 for the Okhotsk Sea, 8 for the Sea of Japan, and 52 for the Pacific coasts). In 2005, the national quota was increased to 66 whales. They have also been incidentally taken as bycatch in the California/Oregon drift gillnet fishery. Alaskan Natives are not known to take Baird’s beaked whales as part of their subsistence harvest. This species of beaked whales may be sensitive to underwater sounds and anthropogenic noise. Anthropogenic noise levels in the world’s oceans are an increasing habitat concern, particularly for deep-diving cetaceans like Baird’s beaked whales that use sound to feed, communicate, and navigate in the ocean.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species considers this species “Lower Risk Conservation Dependent.”
In 1997, NMFS implemented the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan, which requires the use of pingers and 6-fathom net extenders in the CA/OR drift gillnet fishery to reduce bycatch of cetaceans, including Baird’s beaked whales. The Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Team continues to meet and recommend measures to further reduce bycatch and achieve MMPA goals.
TOOTHED or TOOTHLESS (BALEEN): Toothed
FRESHWATER, SALTERWATER or BRACKISH: Saltwater
RELATIVE SPECIES: Baird’s beaked Whale
NEIGHBORING SPECIES: Southern Bottlenose Whale
THREATS: Capture for scientific study
DIET: Squid and deep sea fish
MANNER OF FEEDING: Deep foraging
BEHAVIOR: Occur in groups of about 10 but will travel in groups up to 80. Shy and difficult to observe.
LIFE SPAN: Unknown
- Are some of the best divers, can stay submerged for a very long time (over an hour).
- Are capable of breathing when trapped under ice.
- Baird’s beaked whales get their name from Spencer F. Baird, who was a renowned naturalist in the late 1800s and the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
- Baird’s beaked whales are some of the most commonly sighted beaked whales within their specific range due to their gregarious behavior and large body size
- Stalked barnacles sometimes colonize the teeth of beaked whales, especially in older mature males.
- Knopf, Alfred A. Guide to Marine Mammals of the World.Random House. 2002