updated 11/4/2004 7:07:30 PM ET 2004-11-05T00:07:30

The body of a whale resembling a giant dolphin that washed up on an eastern Australian beach has intrigued local scientists, who agreed Wednesday that it is rare but are not sure just how rare.

Scientists initially thought the 20-foot female may be a Longman's beaked whale -- a species so rare that only one other complete adult specimen has been found in the world.

But after seeing photographs of the animal, experts at the Australian Museum in Sydney said it could be a southern bottle-nosed whale -- still an unusual find but not as rare as a Longman's.

"Just going by the photos and the measurements ... the beak is a bit short for a Longman's," a museum spokeswoman said.

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If it proves to be a Longman's, the find is likely to interest marine experts throughout the world. The only other known complete adult specimen of the species was a 21-foot female that died shortly after swimming aground on Japan's southern coast in 2002.

Longman's beaked whales are thought to live in the Pacific and Indian Oceans but are rarely seen and scientists do not know how many there are or how long they live.

Lawrence Orel, of the New South Wales state National Parks and Wildlife Service, described Tuesday's find in Byron Bay, 400 miles north of Sydney, as "very exciting."

"Quite a number of museums are interested in obtaining material or information about it," he said. "If it is confirmed as a Longman's beaked whale, it would certainly be the first full specimen discovered in Australia."

Even if it proves to be a southern bottle-nosed whale, it would still be considered a special find.

"Specimens of them are quite rare," the Australian Museum spokeswoman said. "We've only got one skull in the collection in 135 years of the Australian Museum."

Orel said the Byron Bay whale possibly died of old age.

"The exact cause of death hasn't been determined," he said. "There's no obvious signs or serious injury on the animal."

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