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A very rare sighting of a very rare whale

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WCA Partner Clive Martin describes his recent trip to the Maldives with WCA Partner Whale and Dolphin Company, and tells of an incredible encounter with one of the rarest whales on the planet….

‘When you arrive at Male airport in the Maldives you don’t have to walk far to find your boat…it is just 20 paces to the dock where all the fast craft take you to your Island resort. In my case I had travelled with my daughter Jo Blaise (also a WCA Partner) to join a live aboard boat, the very comfortable “Keana” on which we were to stay for a 10 day trip around the Southern Atolls.

The word Atoll comes from a Maldivian word atolu meaning a ring shaped reef or chain of islands formed of coral…..the coral here however, as it is in many places, is suffering from “bleaching”.

This was not my first trip to the Maldive Islands as I had, as before, travelled with Dr Chas Anderson who runs Whale and Dolphin Company, also a Partner of the WCA, and THE guy to travel with if you ever visit this absolutely awesome part of the Indian Ocean.

I have spent a lot of my life travelling the oceans and love every sighting I get of cetaceans and other marine life, but to me there is something very mysterious about the beaked whales and I am always spellbound when I see a species new to me…although the last one being a dead stranded Shepherd’s beaked whale,  Tasmacetus shepherdii on Tristan da Cunha.

My first trip with Chas was in 2004 and at that time he was sighting the Longman’s beaked whale (also known as the tropical bottlenose whale) Indopacetus pacificus on a fairly regular basis and was able to point one out on that trip..albeit at some distance….but amazing when you consider that the Longman’s is recognised as a very rare species and I was able to say I had seen one.

So on this trip in October 2018 I was hoping that I might get a better view and even some good photographic images of the Longman’s.

For those of you not versed in whale watching ‘beakies’ they really are the devil to identify…you almost have to ask them to smile so that you have a chance of viewing the jaws and teeth of the males if they happen to be of that gender…the female beaked whale species have teeth BUT they don’t erupt above the jawline. The males often give you a clue as to their sex by displaying scarring on their bodies caused by sparring when the tusk like teeth are used to inflict ‘injury’ on their fellow males who maybe attempting to steal their female harems or territory, probably much like terrestrial mammals. The juvenile males however generally don’t exhibit this scarring until they become sexually mature……so all in all very difficult to identify.

The beaked whale species are deep divers and the Cuvier’s beaked whale, Ziphius cavirostris  has been recognised as the deepest diver of all cetacean species including the sperm whale!

So when at sea, and if you are on the ball, you might get a sighting of an animal that of course has to come to the surface to breathe, will body roll about 4- 6 times…will occasionally breach (if you are lucky), and then dives again seeking yet another meal of calamari!…did you get enough on it to recognise it to species??? probably not….. so you keep the boat in position and wait…..the dive pattern becomes interesting and needs to be recorded, and of course will depend on the topography and prey availability..but dives of 20 – 30 minutes are ‘normal’

That is where Chas comes into the picture because his experience of Maldivian species is second to none and his guidance is essential.

So, on October 14th we set sail into the mirror calm blue waters of the Maldives and over the next few days had sighting after sighting of spinner dolphins pantropical spotteddwarf sperm whale...  yellowfin tuna…….huge mobula rays, including a mating group…more dwarf sperm whale…striped dolphins… Risso’s dolphin… more dwarf sperm whale!….Short-finned pilot whale literally by the hundreds…..Fraser’s dolphin….a pod of 8 orca including 2 calves and another group of two. The first of the orca stayed with us and investigated us as we took photo after photo of them.

On October 18th we got our first sighting of 2 fairly distant beaked whales which dived after about 4 body rolls…..Cuvier’s and Blainvilles were quickly suggested, both having pretty obvious characteristics. 

So we waited and waited for them to once again to breathe, and they did so on a fairly regular 22 minute dive pattern…. we had three or four powerful cameras at the ready, and the results showed conclusively that they could not be a Longman’s but were in fact Deraniyagala’s beaked whale (also known as the sharp beaked whale – Mesoplodon hotaula deraniyagala).  Chas informed us that this was the first time this species had been observed, live at sea, around the Maldives…..previous sightings at sea were from the Solomon Islands and the Philippines!

We also had a great sighting of  3 Blainville’s beaked whale, probably immature males or females….difficult to more precise as these animals showed virtually no scarring and no erupted tusk like teeth were observed.

I really do recommend a trip to the Maldives and the only way to see the Atolls is on a “live a board” boat….elaborate resorts are not for me’.

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