The Rarest of the World's Whales - Spotted Twice whilst Whale Watching
The Shepherd’s Beaked Whale is one of the rarest species of whales to be sighted in the world. But over the past 10 days, a small pod has been spotted in the Kaikōura Canyon. Twice.
Shepherd’s beaked whales are rarely seen in the wild, with only a handful confirmed sightings recorded and most of what is known about these whales being determined from examinations of deceased carcasses of beached/stranded whales. The majority of stranding’s have occurred in New Zealand, with New Zealand being identified as the world's stranding hotspot for the species.
Because of this limited information, almost nothing is known about the behaviour of the Shepherd’s Beaked Whale and a global estimate of population for the species doesn’t exist.
The Shepherd's beaked whale, Tasmacetus shepherdii, is a medium to large-sized whale within the beaked whale family which is thought to inhabit a circumpolar band of cold temperate waters of the southern hemisphere that includes New Zealand waters. This species generally lives in deep offshore waters, well away from coasts. However, where there is a narrow continental shelf, such as the case in Kaikōura with the Hikurangi Trench starting just 200M from shore, the species can sometimes be found close to the Coast.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, passengers headed out on our third tour of the day on what they thought would be a standard whale watching trip, with an average of 1-2 whale sightings and the chance to see some dolphins, seals and sea birds. Instead they walked away as being part of an exclusive small group of people in the world who have encountered a Shepherd’s Beaked Whale in their natural habitat.
Passengers received an early Christmas gift this year with such a special and rare encounter making for some amazing memories and photos. Crew Member Allan Cronin was able to snap a few images of the pair to determine exactly what suborder of the 15 known beaked whales they were and provided photo confirmation of the species.
The two Shepherd’s beaked whales appeared at the bow of the boat, only surfacing for a few minutes before vanishing to the depths of the sea, and keeping up their elusive nature. It is believed that their stealth enabled them to evade whalers during the whaling era. However, like many other cetaceans, they are unable to avoid plastic, global warming and man-made noise which is their largest threats.
The pair sighted whilst whale watching in Kaikōura on the 24th December 2017 is said to take the number of confirmed sightings in New Zealand waters to six.
It turns out that this is a Christmas gift that keeps on giving! Yesterday, on the 2nd January 2018, two Shepherd’s beaked whales were sighted again and this time in a new area of the Canyon and closer to the Kaikōura Peninsula. Onlookers were in for a treat, experiencing an extraordinary encounter with one of the rarest whales in the world.
Since Whale Watch Kaikoura was formed in 1987, 30 years at sea exploring the Kaikōura Canyon has only resulted in sporadic sightings of beaked whales, let alone the rare and elusive Shepherd’s beaked whale twice in the span of a few weeks.
It is encouraging to see so many species of whales, dolphins and marine life in general continuing to live and thrive in Kaikōura waters since the earthquake, and it is especially encouraging to have sighted one of the world’s least known cetaceans on two separate occasions.
Along with the Shepherd’s beaked whales, the first two days of 2018 have brought with it some incredible sightings. Already our tours have encountered semi-resident and transient Sperm Whales as well as viewing our first pod of Orca for the year and a Humpback Whale visiting us well before their annual migration which is due to kick off in May. What will the rest of 2018 bring?