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How Low Can You Go? This Whale Is the Champion of Deep Diving

Scientists say the Cuvier's beaked whale off the coast of California was tracked diving down nearly 1.9 miles.
Image: Cuvier's beaked whale
The head of an adult male Cuvier's beaked whale is seen as it surfaces the water.Handout / Reuters

If there were a gold medal for cetacean diving, it undoubtedly would go to the Cuvier's beaked whale.

Scientists said on Wednesday they tracked these medium-sized whales off the coast of California using satellite-linked tags as the creatures dove down nearly 1.9 miles and spent 2 hours and 17 minutes underwater before resurfacing.

Those are breath-taking accomplishments for an air-breathing creature. In fact, those figures represent both the deepest and the longest dives ever documented for any marine mammal, said Greg Schorr of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Wash., who led the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

"Many creatures live at the depths these whales dive to, including their likely primary prey of squid and fish. 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," Schorr said.

"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 added.

Image: Cuvier's beaked whale
The head of an adult male Cuvier's beaked whale is seen as it surfaces the water.Handout / Reuters

By way of comparison, the record for a person holding his breath underwater is 22 minutes, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. A person, of course, would never survive the bone-crushing water pressure at those stupendous depths.

Cuvier's beaked whales are widely distributed in many deep-water regions from the tropics to cool temperate waters, though not in polar regions. They measure up to about 23 feet long, with stout bodies shaped a bit like a torpedo. Their foreheads slope into a short beak with a slightly upturned mouth — leaving them with a vaguely "smiling" appearance.

Their color ranges from gray to a reddish-brown to a pale white. Some are marked with linear white scars caused by males raking other males with their teeth, perhaps while competing for females. They 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," Schorr said. "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."

— Reuters