Whales Have Been Clocked Diving Three Kilometres Deep On One Breath Of Air

Beaked Whale. Image: UC San Diego

Cuvier’s beaked whales have pushed side sperm whales and elephant seals to be the deepest diving, breath-holding animals on the planet.

Scientists studying the whales say they have recorded the 5 to 6 metres long mammals going to depths of up to three kilometres for more than two hours.

They used data from satellite-linked tags which recorded diving behaviour and locations of eight Cuvier’s beaked whales off the Southern California coast. More than 3,700 hours of diving data, including depth and time of each dive ws collected.

Researchers recorded 1,100 deep-dives, averaging 0.87 miles deep, and 5600 shallow-dives, averaging about 0.17 miles deep. The deepest dives recorded was one that reached nearly two miles below the ocean surface, and the longest lasted 137 minutes.

The dives not only exceed the previous Cuvier’s beaked whale diving records of ~1 mile deep and 95 minutes, but also the current mammalian dive record previously set by the southern elephant seal at ~1.5 miles deep and 120 minutes.

One striking difference compared to other divers is that deep-diving elephant seals and sperm whales require an extended recovery period after long, deep dives, whereas Cuvier’s beaked whales average less than two minutes at the surface between dives.

The results of this study provide a better understanding of the unique diving capabilities of this species, which accounts for 69% of recorded marine mammal strandings associated with military sonar operations.

All eight whales were tagged on a Navy sonar training range off the west coast of California and spent significant portion of their time there, suggesting these animals may have learned to cope with disturbances which may cause stranding in Cuvier’s beaked whales elsewhere.

The results of the study are published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Gregory Schorr from Cascadia Research Collective and colleagues.

“It’s remarkable to imagine these social, warm-blooded mammals actively pursuing prey in the darkness at such astounding depths, literally miles away from their most basic physiological need: air,” says Greg Schorr.

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