Whale of a Discovery

For decades fishermen and tourists claimed they saw a mysterious whale. While it was black and white, it didn’t look quite like a killer whale with its more bulbous head that looked like a beluga’s as well as a much smaller eye patch.

Type D killer whales showing their blunt heads and tiny eyepatches in 2011. Photo: J.P. Sylvestre via NOAA

Type D killer whales showing their blunt heads and tiny eyepatches in 2011. Photo: J.P. Sylvestre via NOAA

According to news reports, researchers discovered this new breed of orcas swimming near southern Chile in January. While the DNA tests from tissue samples have not been yet been released, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt confident enough in the discovery to announce it this past Thursday.

Regular orcas with their bigger bodies, pointier heads, and larger eye patch than the type D orcas that were recently discovered.

Regular orcas with their bigger bodies, pointier heads, and larger eye patch than the type D orcas that were recently discovered.

Robert Pitman, a NOAA marine ecologist in San Diego, told the CBC that these whales most likely eat fish unlike regular orcas that eat seals and other marine mammals. They are also a bit smaller than the killer whales we’re familiar with, at six to 7.5 meters long. He added that killer whales in the Southern Hemisphere are all considered to be one species and are classified in types A through C. This new whale is called type D or subantarctic killer whale.

Up until now, these whales were considered folklore. Scientists came close to pinning them down in 1955 when there was a mass stranding in New Zealand. They figured it was likely that it was one family of killer whales that had a specific mutation, Pitman said. The discovery in January and the rumours – including some photo documentation – say otherwise.

“The type D killer whale lives in the most inhospitable waters on the planet,” Pitman told the CBC. “It’s a good place to hide.”

Pitman saw his first subantarctic killer whale January 21st when he, along with other researchers, went looking. A pod of 25 of the whales came up to the boat he was on, looking for some lunch. The scientists apparently had equipment problems and were unable to record the whale’s songs but they managed to get a tissue sample. This is obtained by shooting a crossbow (this sounds worse than it is. According to Pitman, the whales’ skin is so tough it doesn’t hurt them. The arrow is “like a soda straw bouncing off a truck tire.”

We’ll look forward to hearing more about this cool whale. It’s amazing how much this planet we have yet to discover.