Baird’s Beaked Whale
About The Species
Baird's beaked whales, sometimes called giant bottlenose whales, are the largest members of the beaked whale family. Named after renowned naturalist, Spencer F. Baird, they can be found throughout the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas and in U.S. waters off the West Coast from California to Alaska. This species prefers cold, deep, oceanic waters, but may occasionally be found near shore along narrow continental shelves.
There is little information on the abundance of Baird’s beaked whales worldwide because sightings at sea are rare. Overall, the beaked whale family is elusive and shy, and individual species lack any easily discernible physical characteristics to distinguish them from one another. Baird's beaked whales, however, are some of the most commonly sighted beaked whales because of their social behavior and large body size.
Although they face threats from entanglement in fishing gear, commercial whaling, marine debris ingestion, and human-caused noise, Baird’s beaked whales in the United States are not listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Like all marine mammals, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
NOAA Fisheries estimates the population size for each stock of Baird’s beaked whale in its stock assessment reports. NOAA Fisheries manages two stocks of Baird’s beaked whale: the Alaska stock and the California-Oregon-Washington stock. There is little information on the abundance of this species because sightings at sea are rare. Thus, data are insufficient to estimate population trends.
CITES Appendix II
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
Baird's beaked whales are the largest members of the beaked whale family (Ziphiidae). Females reach lengths of about 36 feet, while males are slightly smaller at about 35 feet. As adults, they can weigh up to approximately 26,455 pounds.
Baird's beaked whales have a large, long, robust body with a relatively small, rounded, triangular dorsal fin that is located far down their back. They also have a curved head with a bulbous forehead (known as a melon); a distinct, long, cylindrical beak; a curved mouth line; and a crescent-shaped blowhole.
Adults of both sexes have two relatively small but visible teeth that protrude from the front of their lower jaw, which extends beyond the upper jaw. Their pectoral flippers are short, round, and untapered, folding against their body. Baird's beaked whales are generally a mottled grayish and/or brownish color, and their underside may be paler with random white patches.
Adult males may seem lighter because of heavy grayish-white scarring from scratching and raking other males with their small front teeth. Predation from killer whales may also be responsible for some of these scars. Other coloration, such as a greenish-brown shade, may be the result of whale lice infestation or diatoms (a type of algae) on the skin. Baird's beaked whales produce rapid, low, bushy blows when exhaling at the water’s surface.
Behavior and Diet
Beaked whale species are difficult to distinguish from one another because they all have a similar appearance. Identification is further complicated by their relatively small body sizes, elusive and shy behavior around humans, and inconspicuous blow. Because beaked whales are hard to distinguish in the wild, much of the information about them is generalized to the entire genus.
Baird's beaked whales are usually found in tight social groups (schools or pods) averaging between five and 20 individuals, but they have occasionally been seen in larger groups of up to 50 animals. Like other beaked whales, Baird's beaked whales can make long, deep dives. Typical dives last from 11 to 30 minutes, but beaked whales have been recorded diving for more than an hour; the longest known Baird’s beaked whale dive lasted 67 minutes. Beaked whales commonly dive to depths of 3,300 feet. The deepest known dive for a beaked whale was 9,840 feet (nearly 2 miles) and lasted 138 minutes!
While diving, they generally feed between depths of 2,500 and 4,000 feet on deep-sea and open-ocean species of fish (e.g., mackerel, sardines, and saury), as well as crustaceans, sea cucumbers, squid, and octopus. At the surface, they will remain logging (resting), continuously blowing, breaching, or displaying various other behaviors between dives for as long as 14 minutes.
Where They Live
Baird's beaked whales prefer cold, deep, oceanic waters deeper than 3,300 feet but may occasionally be found near shore along narrow continental shelves. This species is often associated with steep underwater geologic structures such as submarine canyons, seamounts, and continental slopes. Baird's beaked whales are found throughout the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent seas (Bering Sea, Sea of Cortez, Sea of Japan, Okhotsk Sea, and occasionally the Gulf of California). In the United States, they inhabit waters off the West Coast from California to Alaska. In the eastern North Pacific, they can be found north of 28° north to the southern Bering Sea, and in the western North Pacific from 34° north to the Okhotsk Sea. Baird’s beaked whales generally migrate seasonally based on surface water temperature.During summer and fall they are found in or near the waters of the continental slope. Between April and October, Baird's beaked whales have been observed in the nearshore waters of the Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea. They will move farther offshore during winter and spring when sea temperatures have decreased. Little is known of this species' wintering grounds. Because of the uncertainty regarding their migration patterns and variable distribution, the two stocks off the U.S. West Coast may overlap.
Lifespan & Reproduction
The lifespan for beaked whales is 54 years for females and 84 years for males. Females also mature more slowly than males.
Female Baird's beaked whales reach sexual maturity at 10 to 15 years versus 6 to 11 years for males. A sexually mature female or cow will give birth to a single calf that is about 15 feet long, usually between the months of March and April after a pregnancy lasting 12 to 17 months. Females typically give birth once every 3 or more years.
Entanglement in Fishing Gear
Baird’s beaked whales can become entangled in fishing gear, either swimming off with the gear attached or becoming anchored. They can become entangled in many different gear types, particularly in the in the California/Oregon drift gillnet fishery. Once entangled, whales may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury, which may lead to reduced reproductive success and death.
Historically, at least 4,000 Baird's beaked whales were hunted by commercial whalers in the North Pacific Ocean, mainly by Japan, though also by Russia, Canada, and the United States. Commercial whalers in Japan still hunt Baird’s beaked whales.
Deep-diving small whales like Baird's beaked whales use sound to feed, communicate, and navigate in the ocean. Sound pollution threatens them by interrupting their normal behavior and driving them away from areas important to their survival. Sources of sound pollution include noise from shipping vessels, military sonar, and sonar used for seismic exploration.
Baird’s beaked whales may die after ingesting fishing line, balloons, plastic bags, plastic pieces, or other plastic debris which they can mistake for food.
Killer whales are the primary predators of Baird’s beaked whales.
Like all marine mammals, the Baird’s beaked whale is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA Fisheries is working to conserve this species to ensure populations remain stable.
Reducing Entanglement in Fishing Gear
Entanglement in fishing gear is a primary cause of serious injury and death for many whale species, including Baird’s beaked whales.
In the Pacific, we implemented the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan to reduce mortalities and serious injuries of several marine mammal stocks—including Baird’s beaked whales—incidentally injured in the California thresher shark/swordfish drift gillnet fishery.
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and its partners assess the animal’s health and try to return it to the water. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes identify strandings due to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that can have implications for human health and welfare.
Addressing Ocean Noise
Increasing evidence suggests that exposure to intense underwater sound in some settings may cause some whales to strand and ultimately die. NOAA Fisheries is investigating all aspects of acoustic communication and hearing in marine animals, as well as the effects of sound on beaked whale behavior and hearing. In 2016, we issued technical guidance for assessing the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammal hearing.
Baird’s beaked whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Key Actions and Documents
Determining the size of Baird’s beaked whale populations helps resource managers gauge the success of NOAA Fisheries’ conservation measures. Our scientists collect and present these data in annual stock assessment reports.
NOAA Fisheries conducts research cruises to collect information on beaked whale stocks, such as habit preferences and feeding ecology. For example, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center has estimated the abundance of Baird’s beaked whales and other cetaceans in the Gulf of Alaska, using oceanic research vessels to perform line-transect surveys. Information from this research can be used in management actions to protect these animals.
Researchers and collaborators at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center have conducted acoustic monitoring to record the sounds that Baird’s beaked whales and other cetaceans receive and the sounds they produce. Researchers examined the sound exposure, sound use, and behavior of beaked whales in the Gulf of Alaska, where the Navy periodically conducts training exercises. Beaked whales have shown behavioral responses to sonar and are thus susceptible to the impact of military activity in the area. Information from this study will be used to help minimize the effects of Navy operations in the Gulf of Alaska, so our military can protect both our coastline and our whales.
The Alaska Fisheries Science Center has also tracked location data from satellite tags deployed on Baird’s beaked whales in the Gulf of Alaska to monitor their movements and habitat use.