Sighting Characteristics and Photo-Identification of Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) Near San Clemente Island, California: A Key Area for Beaked Whales and the Military?

The relationship between beaked whales and certain anthropogenic sounds remains poorly understood and of great interest. Although Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) are widely distributed, little is known of their behavior and population structure throughout much of their range. We conducted a series of five combined visual-acoustic marine mammal surveys from 2006 to 2008 in the southern San Nicolas Basin, a site of frequent naval activity off the southern California coast, west of San Clemente Island. The study area was defined by a 1,800 km2 array of 88 bottom-mounted hydrophones at depths up to 1,850 m. The array was used to vector visual observers toward vocalizing marine mammal species. Thirty-seven groups of Cuvier’s beaked whales were encountered during the study period. The overall encounter rate was one group for every 21.0 h of survey effort, and was as high as one group per 10.2 h of effort during the October 2007 survey. Whales were encountered in the deepest portion of the study area, at a mean bottom depth of 1,580 m (SD 138). The average group size was 3.8 individuals (SD 2.4), which was higher than has been reported from other studies of this species. Twenty-four groups were observed over multiple surfacings (median = 4 surfacings, range 2–15). The mean encounter duration of extended sightings was 104 min (SD 98, range 12–466 min) and the mean distance moved over the course of sightings was 1.66 km (SD 1.56, range 0.08–6.65 km). Temporal surfacing patterns during extended encounters were similar to dive behavior described from Cuvier’s beaked whales carrying time-depth recording tags. Seventy- eight photographic identifications were made of 58 unique individuals, for an overall resighting rate of 0.26. Whales were sighted on up to 4 days, with duration from first to last sighting spanning 2–79 days. For those whales sighted on subsequent days, the mean distance between subsequent sightings was 8.6 km (SD 7.9). Individuals resighted over 2–3 days were usually in association with previous group members. Approximately one-third of groups contained more than one adult male, and many of the repeated associations involved adult males. These observations suggest the basin west of San Clemente Island may be an important region for Cuvier’s beaked whales, and also one which affords an unusual opportunity to collect detailed data on this species. Given its status as an active military range, it can also provide the ability to monitor the behavior of individuals in the presence of naval sonar, a critical step in the management of this and other beaked whale populations worldwide.


Falcone, E.A., G.S. Schorr, A.B. Douglas, J. Calambokidis, E. Henderson, M.F. McKenna, J. Hildebrand, and D. Moretti. 2009. Sighting Characteristics and Photo-Identification of Cuviers Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) Near San Clemente Island, California: A Key Area for Beaked Whales and the Military? Marine Biology 156: 2631-2640. doi: 10.1007/s00227-009-1289-8

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