Footage has been captured of what researchers believe is a new species of killer whale.
This past January, NOAA Fisheries and an international team of scientists encountered what they thought was a unique a pod of orcas off the Southern tip of Chile. Now they’re waiting on laboratory confirmation that the genetic samples they collected prove their rare find.
“It’s a story that could solve a decades old mystery,” said the NOAA.
Called Type D, the whales were previously known only from a beach stranding more than 60 years ago, fishermen’s stories, and tourist photographs.
The Type D killer whale is described as having a distinctly different colour pattern and body shape.
“We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come. Type D killer whales could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet and a clear indication of how little we know about life in our oceans,” said Bob Pitman, a researcher from NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California.
The team’s encounter with the distinctive whales came after they spent more than a week at anchor, waiting out the perpetual storms of Cape Horn off southern Chile. It was here that the scientists collected three biopsy samples—tiny bits of skin harmlessly taken from the whales with a crossbow dart—from a group of Type D killer whales.
According to the NOAA, the first record of the unusual killer whales came in 1955, when 17 of the whales were found stranded on the coast of Paraparaumu, New Zealand.
Compared to other killer whales, they had more rounded heads, a narrower and more pointed dorsal fin, and a tiny white eyepatch.
“Initially, scientists speculated that the unique look might have been a genetic aberration only seen in those stranded whales,” explained the NOAA.
Then, in 2005, a French scientist showed Pitman photographs of odd-looking killer whales that had taken fish from commercial fishing lines near Crozet Island in the southern Indian Ocean. They had the same tiny eye patches and bulbous heads.
This year, the stories and photographs finally became real. The expedition to search for the elusive Type D killer whale, which included Pitman and a team of experts, set out in January from Ushuaia, Argentina on the 22-metre vessel Australis.
After many days braving the elements and being pummeled by 40 to 60 knot winds at Cape Horn, the Australis team finally found what they had been looking for.
The Australis spent three hours among a group of about 30 whales, which approached the vessel many times. The team obtained underwater images of the pod, which show the whales in great detail.
“The Type D killer whale images brought back by team Australis serve as a reminder of how little we know about life in our oceans,” said the NOAA. “In the next few months, the DNA samples should finally reveal just how different the Type D is from other killer whales.”