A Mystery Whale Species Finally Makes an Appearance

The Omura’s whale can grow to 38 feet long, but nobody had seen one in the wild until now.

So little is known about Omura's whales that scientists are unsure how many exist or how rare the species is. (Photo: Cerchio)

Oct 31, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

For the first time ever, scientists have documented the Omura’s whale in the wild, snapping photos and videos of the large yet elusive species off the coast of Madagascar.

It has been more than a decade since the mysterious marine mammal was first described as a species, but no living Omura’s whales had ever been recorded until now.

Previous reports were all based on dead specimens, but in a new study published this month in the journal Royal Society Open Science, researchers found a whole population of Omura’s whales swimming, foraging, and singing off Madagascar’s north shore.

“Over the years, there have been a small handful of possible sightings of Omura’s whales, but nothing that was confirmed,” said Salvatore Cerchio, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “They appear to occur in remote regions and are difficult to find at sea because they are small—they range in length from approximately 33 to 38 feet—and do not put up a prominent blow.”

He means small for a whale—they are still larger than most orcas, and about the same size as your average school bus. But even at that size, they’ve stayed out of the science spotlight. They closely resemble the Bryde’s whale, but distinct markings on the head and a lower jaw with contrasting light and dark sides showed the scientists these whales were something different.

Map of the study sites off the northwest coast of Madagascar. (Map: Cerchio)

Cerchio and his colleagues began their quest to find the species eight years ago and finally spotted one of the whales in 2011. What little the team knew going into their search came primarily from eight specimens of Omura’s whales taken in Japanese whaling off the Solomon and Keeling islands and a few strandings of dead animals in Japan, he said.

Images of Madagascar Omura's whales, displaying details of pigmentation and external appearance. Five different individuals are pictured. (Photos: Cerchio)

“From the little information on their habitat and range, Omura’s whales were not supposed to be in that part of the Indian Ocean,” Cerchio said. “This is the first definitive evidence and detailed descriptions of Omura’s whales in the wild and part of what makes this work particularly exciting.”

In total, the team observed 44 groups of Omura’s whales, photo documented 25 individuals, and collected skin biopsies from 18 adult whales.