The Omura’s whale is so rare and little-known that there hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting in the wild by scientists… until now.
Researchers working off the coast of Madagascar have captured the first-ever footage of the elusive Omura’s whales, a species so uncommon that scientists have no idea how many there are in the world.
“Over the years, there have been a small handful of possible sightings of Omura’s whales, but nothing that was confirmed,” Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said in a news release. “They appear to occur in remote regions and are difficult to find at sea, because they are small and do not put up a prominent blow.”
The whales are generally between 33 feet and 38 feet in length. That makes them less than half the size of most blue whales, even though the two are cousins — both belonging to the whale family called rorquals.
Until now, the only Omura’s whales that have been found were dead whales, and those were initially mistaken for the larger Bryde’s whales until DNA tests revealed them to be a separate species.
Details about the discovery were recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Cerchio, who led the research while at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that when his team first spotted the whales in 2011, they too initially believed them to be Bryde’s whales.
They, however, soon noticed the unique coloring of the head.
“When we clearly saw that the right jaw was white, and the left jaw was black, we knew that we were on to something very special,” said Cerchio. “The only problem was that Omura’s whales were not supposed to be in this part of the Indian Ocean. Rather, they should be in the West Pacific, near Thailand and the Philippines.”
The researchers were able to collect skin samples from the whales, which confirmed the rare find in 2013.
Along with the video footage, Cerchio’s team has used photographs to catalog about 25 individual whales, including four mothers with young calves.
They were also able to record whale vocalizations they believe might indicate reproductive behavior.
Cerchio is planning to return to the area to study the whales further and hopes to be able to tag some so that more can be learned about their behavior.