The first time Type D killer whales were recorded was in 1955 when 17 of the distinctive Orca species were stranded on the coast of New Zealand, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Then, in 2005 a researcher captured photos of similar whales stealing fish off commercial fishing lines in the Indian Ocean.
Stories and photos continued to come in over the past decade, NOAA said, and now, scientists have documented them for the first time in the wild.
The NOAA team followed tales from Chilean fishermen of the oddly shaped killer whales stealing fish from lines off the southern tip of South America.
In January, NOAA researchers braved some of the worst weather in the world to find the elusive whales in the wild.
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“At first, luck did not seem to favor the Australis team—at one point they sat at anchor for eight anxious days, pummeled by 40 to 60 knot winds at Cape Horn. Then, during a brief lull in the weather, Australis pounded its way back offshore when the team’s fortune changed,” according to NOAA.
About 25 killer whales came up to the ship, National Geographic reports. “The orcas congregated about the boat for a couple hours, seemingly curious about these humans and their vessel,” the magazine writes.
“Compared to other killer whales, they had more rounded heads, a narrower and more pointed dorsal fin, and a tiny white eyepatch; no whales like this had ever been described before,” NOAA writes of the first time the whales were described more than 60 years ago. The whales they found off Chile matched that old description.
The researchers collected biopsy samples, NOAA said, so they can confirm the whales have different DNA than typical orcas.
“We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come. Type D killer whales could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet and a clear indication of how little we know about life in our oceans,” said Bob Pitman, the lead NOAA researcher on the project, in a news release.
“By collecting the first biopsy samples ever obtained on this form of killer whale, Pitman’s expedition [promises to] increase our knowledge on genetics, evolution, feeding preferences, and resource partitioning in type Ds, and in killer whales as a whole,” Paul Tixier, with Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, said, according to National Geographic.
Tixier is the researcher who took those 2005 photos of the Type D killer whales in the Indian Ocean.
“These samples hold the key to determining whether this form of killer whale represents a distinct species,” Pitman said, according to NOAA.
According to National Geographic, “Killer whales are still officially considered to be one species, Orcinus orca.”
John Ford, a researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the University of British Columbia, told the magazine that some variations on killer whales could deserve their own species designation.
“There are good grounds for considering other killer whales separate species as well, but where to draw that lines is very difficult,” Ford told National Geographic.