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. Overall, species in the beaked whale family are elusive and shy and often lack 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.
In 2019, Yamada et al. described a new species (Berardius minimus) of beaked whale of the genus Berardius found in the North Pacific Ocean. This species has a substantially smaller spindle-shaped body, relatively shorter beak, darker coloration (black) than Arnoux’s and Baird’s beaked whale, and almost no linear scars. It has a limited distribution between 40 to 60 degrees North and 140 degrees East to 160 degrees West, generally found off northern Japan (Hokkaido) and the Sea of Okhotsk.
Although they face threats from entanglement in fishing gear, commercial whaling, marine debris ingestion, and human-caused noise, Baird’s beaked whales 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.
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, slender, long, robust body with a relatively small, rounded, triangular dorsal fin that is located about two-thirds of the way 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 pairs of visible teeth that erupt from the front of their lower jaw around sexual maturity. Older animals may have rounded, worn teeth and heavily infested with barnacles. Their pectoral flippers are short, round, and untapered, folding against their body. The more widespread slate-gray form of Baird's beaked whales are generally a mottled grayish and/or brownish color, and their underside may be paler with random white patches. The smaller form of Baird’s beaked whale occurring in northern Hokkaido(Japan) and the Sea of Okhotsk is darker in color, and is referred to as the black form. This form has recently been recognized as a new species called Sato’s beaked whale (Berardius minimus).
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. The gray coloration form is Baird's beaked whale which are larger and have a more southerly and widespread distribution. The black coloration form is the newly described species that are smaller and have a more northerly distribution off Japan and in the North Pacific Ocean (e.g., Sea of Okhotsk). 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 can be difficult to distinguish from one another because many have a similar appearance. Identification is further complicated by their relatively small body sizes, elusive and shy behavior, 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 81.7 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 (e.g., spy-hop and slap flukes and flippers) 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 southern Baja Peninsula off Mexico and Gulf of California). In the United States, they inhabit waters off the West Coast from California to Alaska. In the eastern North Pacific Ocean, they can be found north of 28° North to the southern Bering Sea, and in the Western North Pacific Ocean 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 May 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
Baird’s beaked whales are very long lived. Whaling records have documented females up to 54 years old and males up to 84 years old. Males appear to have a lower mortality rate and mature more quickly than females.
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 March and April after an approximately 17-month pregnancy. Females typically give birth once every three or more years, and do not have a post-reproductive stage.
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 gear associated with 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 airguns used for oil and gas exploration.
Baird’s beaked whales may die after ingesting fishing line, balloons, plastic bags, plastic pieces, or other debris which they can mistake for food.
Killer whales are the primary predators of Baird’s beaked whales.
In the Spotlight
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 including all whales. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health and determine the best course of action. 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 attribute strandings 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 may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events
Baird’s beaked whales have never been part of a declared unusual mortality event. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an unusual mortality event is defined as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response." To understand the health of marine mammal populations, scientists study unusual mortality events.
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.