The Cuvier's beaked whale is the champion of deep diving

by Enrico Villa

The Cuvier's beaked whale is the deepest diving mammal, having reached the amazing depth of 2992 metres.

While most people think the Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is the master of freediving, the current record holder among marine mammals is a lesser known cetacean called Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris).

A Cuvier's beaked whale surfacing

Cuvier's beaked whale surfacing - photo by Justin Hart

Belonging to family Ziphiidae (suborder Odontoceti), beaked whales are among the least studied cetaceans, the main reasons being:

  1. They dive for a very long time and spend very little time at the water surface, when compared to other whales and dolphins.
  2. In general, they are elusive and their blow is not very conspicuous.
  3. They prefer to inhabit offshore, deep waters.

You can access our species database to find out about all the members of family Ziphiidae. Just visit the page and choose Ziphiidae from the family dropdown list:

Species database

A Cuvier's beaked whale breathing at the surface

Cuvier's beaked whale breathing at the surface - photo by Justin Hart

In 2014, a very influential paper was published by a group of scientists studying the Cuvier's beaked whale in California, U.S.A1.
During this long-term study1, they tagged several whales by deploying high-tech devices to or near the dorsal fin of the animals. That allowed them to collect data such as the depth reached in each dive and the GPS position of a surfacing whale.

Two world records were broken during the study:

The Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) is now the deepest diving marine mammal, having reached the astonishing depth of 2992 metres.

The Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) has performed the longest dive ever recorded for a marine mammal, with a stunning 137.5 minutes.

As stated at the beginning of this post, most people think the Sperm whale is the record holder for both the deepest and the longest dive among mammals. Well, you now know it is not true!
Technically, it could still be true, as most dives performed by Sperm whales (or any other diving animal, for that matter) were never recorded. However, so far no recorded dive of a Sperm whale got even close to the depth reached by the current record holder, which is actually a female Cuvier's beaked whale!

Mother and calf Cuvier's beaked whales

Mother and calf Cuvier's beaked whales - photo by Justin Hart

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Sperm whale was not the former record holder. The species that lost its records to Ziphius cavirostris is the Elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), whose previous world records were 2388 metres for deep diving and 120 minutes for the longest dive.

Beaked whales gained much popularity due to the new findings on their diving performances. Moreover, such performances are not just about some sporadic very long and extremely deep dives. In the study cited before1, deep dives of Cuvier's beaked whales averaged a depth of 1401 metres and a duration of 67.4 minutes. Furthermore, their surface intervals were on average a little less than a couple of minutes, which is absolutely remarkable if you consider how deep they dive!

All Cuvier's beaked whales have distinctive markings

All Cuvier's beaked whales have distinctive markings - photo by Justin Hart

Before Ziphius made it to the news for its amazing diving behaviour, beaked whales were known just for a couple of characteristics they have:

  1. All members of the Ziphiidae family - i.e. beaked whales - only have teeth on the lower jaw2, but they have only two teeth. Also, those two teeth only erupt in males!

  2. Beaked whales are particularly prone to stranding, especially when exposed to mid-frequency military sonars.

If you want to maximise your chances of encountering the Cuvier's beaked whale in the Azores with us, feel free to have a look at our dynamically generated3 sighting charts by month.

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  1. *Schorr GS, Falcone EA, Moretti DJ, Andrews RD (2014) First Long-Term Behavioral Records from Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) Reveal Record-Breaking Dives. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92633. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092633

  2. Among cetaceans, having teeth only on the lower jaw is a characteristic of those species (obviously belonging to suborder Odontoceti) who feed exclusively or almost exclusively on Cephalopods (squids, octopus, cuttlefish, nautilus). Examples are the Sperm whale, the Risso's dolphin, both species of Pilot whales and all Ziphiids (beaked whales).

  3. Our sighting charts are said to be dynamically generated because they are updated and recreated as soon as we record a new sighting during our Whale Watching tours.