Cuvier's Beaked Whale
About the Species
Cuvier's beaked whales, sometimes called "goose-beaked whales," are members of the beaked whale family. They are one of the most frequently sighted species of beaked whales in the world. They are found in most oceans and seas worldwide and have the most extensive range of all beaked whale species. Cuvier’s beaked whales, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
NOAA Fisheries reviews the status of the Alaska, California/Oregon/Washington, Hawaiian, Northern Gulf of Mexico, and Western North Atlantic stocks of Cuvier’s beaked whale in its stock assessment reports. A stock is a group of animals that occupy the same area and interbreed. They are not considered threatened or endangered.
- Throughout Its Range
CITES Appendix II
- Throughout Its Range
SPAW Annex II
- Throughout the Wider Caribbean Region
Cuvier’s beaked whales can reach lengths of about 15 to 23 feet and weigh 4,000 to 6,800 pounds. There is no significant sexual dimorphism in regards to body size for this species. Cuvier's beaked whale is medium-sized with a round and robust body and a triangular falcate dorsal fin located far down the animal’s back. The head is a sloping concave-shape with no obvious melon, an indistinct beak, and a large slit-like blowhole. The melon becomes more prominent in adult males. The jaw-line is slightly upturned giving the whale a “smiling” appearance. The profile of the head is sometimes described as “goose-like.” Like other beaked whale species, males have two small cone-shaped teeth erupting out of the tip of the bottom jaw that are often used for fighting.
A Cuvier’s beaked whale’s body has variable coloration that ranges from dark gray to a reddish-brown, with a paler counter-shaded underside. The reddish-brown or orange-yellow coloration is caused by the infestation of microscopic diatoms and algae. The body is often covered with linear scratches and oval-shaped scars. The oval-shaped scars are thought to be caused by the bites of cookie-cutter sharks and lampreys. As this species grows older, they become paler, develop a more significant indentation on the top of the head and accumulate more scarring (especially males). There is a whitish coloration to the face and dark-colored patch around the eye.
May species of beaked whales (especially those in the genus Mesoplodon) are very difficult to distinguish from one another (even when dead). At sea, they are challenging to observe and identify to the species level due to their cryptic, skittish behavior, a low profile, and a small, inconspicuous blow at the water's surface; therefore, much of the available characterization for beaked whales is to genus level only. Uncertainty regarding species identification of beaked whales often exists because of a lack of easily discernible or distinct physical characteristics.
Behavior and Diet
When at the surface, Cuvier’s beaked whales rarely breach or display other active behavior. Their small blow is about 3.3 feet tall, angled slightly forward, and occurs in 20 to 30 second intervals, often making it barely visible to observers. As they swim, their head and body will roll high out of the water. When preparing for a deep, vertical dive, they may arch their back more than normal and usually display their flukes. These whales are typically found individually or in small groups from two to seven animals, but groups of up to 25 animals have been reported. Lone animals are most likely males.
Like other beaked whales, they are deep divers. Cuvier’s beaked whales are capable of diving up to at least 3,300 feet for 20 to 40 minutes to opportunistically feed on mostly cephalopods (e.g., squid and octopus) and sometimes fish and crustaceans. A pair of ventral throat grooves help to create a vacuum within their mouths, allowing the whales to suck in their targeted prey. The deepest known dive for a Cuvier’s beaked whale was 9,816 feet (nearly 2 miles) and the longest known dive lasted 222 minutes!
Where They Live
Cuvier’s beaked whales can be found in temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters. They have occasionally been sighted in boreal waters as well. They prefer deep pelagic waters (usually greater than 3,300 feet) of the continental slope and edge, as well as around steep underwater geologic features like banks, seamounts, and submarine canyons. Recent surveys suggest that beaked whales, like this species, may favor oceanographic features such as currents, current boundaries, and core ring features.
Cuvier’s beaked whales have a cosmopolitan distribution and can be found in most oceans and seas worldwide. Most of the distribution information is based on stranding records. The seasonality and migration patterns of this species are not known. Genetic diversity studies indicate that Cuvier’s beaked whales generally remain in their “home” ocean basins, which may create well-defined populations. In the Northern Hemisphere, they are known to occur near the Aleutian Islands, Bay of Biscay, British Columbia, Canada, Gulf of California, Gulf of Mexico, Massachusetts, Mediterranean Sea, and the Shetlands. In the Southern Hemisphere, they are known to occur near New Zealand, South Africa, and Tierra del Fuego. They have also stranded in tropical environments such as the Bahamas, Caribbean Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and the Galapagos Islands.
Lifespan & Reproduction
Cuvier’s beaked whales reach sexual maturity at lengths of 18 to 20 feet for males and 20 feet for females, which is usually between seven to 11 years of age. Breeding and calving can apparently occur year round, but often during the spring. After a year-long gestation period, females give birth to a single calf every two to three years. Newborn calves, dark black or blue in coloration, are about 6.5 to 9 feet long and weight 550 to 660 pounds. They have an estimated lifespan of up to 60 years.
Entanglement in Fishing Gear
They have been taken in fisheries in the Caribbean Sea, Chile, Indonesia, Peru, and Taiwan.
This species has been taken in Japanese whaling operations (three to 35 per year) targeting Baird’s beaked whales.
This species of beaked whale may be sensitive to underwater sounds and anthropogenic noise. Strandings of this species in the Bahamas, Caribbean Sea, Canary Islands, and Mediterranean Sea have been associated with active naval sonar. Anthropogenic noise levels in the world’s oceans are an increasing habitat concern, particularly for deep-diving cetaceans like Cuvier’s beaked whales that use sound to feed, communicate, and navigate in the ocean.
In the Spotlight
Cuvier’s beaked whales, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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
Cuvier’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.
Key Actions and Documents
Incidental Take Authorization: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Geophysical Surveys at the Cascadia Subduction Zone and Juan de Fuca Plate in the
Incidental Take Authorization: Kitty Hawk Wind Marine Site Characterization Surveys off of North Carolina and Virginia
Incidental Take Authorization: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Marine Geophysical Surveys of the Guerrero Gap off the Coast of Mexico in the Eastern
Incidental Take Authorization: Scripps Institution of Oceanography Marine Geophysical Surveys in the Southeastern Gulf of Mexico
Our research projects have helped us better understand Cuvier’s beaked whales and the challenges they face. Our work includes:
- Stock assessments
- Acoustic monitoring
- Shipboard surveys