Whale's Deepest Dive? 1.9 Miles Down for 2-Plus Hours, Per Satellite

Friday, 28 Mar 2014 09:35 AM

By Clyde Hughes

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Satellite tags attached to a Cuvier's beak whale has revealed the animal's remarkable ability to dive to long depths, as much as 1.9 miles, and stay underwater without breathing for more than two hours.

Scientists told Reuters that their research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, documented the beaked whales make some of the deepest and longest dives of any marine mammal.

Greg Schorr of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Wash., said the creatures were recorded diving down nearly 1.9 miles and spending more than two hours underwater before resurfacing for air.

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"Many creatures live at the depths these whales dive to, including their likely primary prey of squid and fish," said Schorr. "However, there is a major difference between these whales and the other creatures living deep in the ocean – the fundamental requirement to breathe air at the surface."

"Taking a breath at the surface and holding it while diving to pressures over 250 times that at the surface is an astounding feat," Schorr continued.

Cuvier's beaked whales can be found in most deep-water regions from the tropics to cool temperate waters that are not polar regions. Some of the whales are marked with linear white scars caused by males raking other males with their teeth, probably while competing for females.

Scientists said the whales feed primarily on deep-water squid and some fish near the ocean floor.

"This species is highly adapted to deep diving, spending less than two minutes at the surface between dives," said Schorr. "These are social, warm-blooded mammals that have adapted to actively pursue their prey at astounding depths – all while up to 1.8 miles away from their most basic physiological need: air."

Erin Falcone, a research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective, told BBC News that the beaked whales have very high levels of the myoglobin protein in their muscles that functions like haemoglobin in the blood, allowing the whales to store more oxygen, thus breathing less frequently.

"One key adaptation that seems to allow beaked whales to dive more deeply than other species is a dramatic reduction in air spaces within their bodies," said Falcone. "It is the presence of air spaces within the body that would crush a human at a fraction of the depths these whales can dive."

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