A strange new species of whale has been found in the northern Pacific Ocean. Tales of the whale have previously been told by Japanese fishermen, who call them karasu (ravens) because they are black and have a bulbous head with a distinctive beak, but up until now they have remained entirely unknown to science.

Beyond the anecdotal yarns of the fishermen, the curious cetacean is yet to be seen alive, but researchers have now confirmed that it roams right across the Pacific Ocean, from northern Japan to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

The discovery of the whale, which is yet to be officially named, was announced in in the journal Marine Mammal Science last week. ‘Clearly this species is very rare and reminds us how much we have to learn about the ocean and even some of its largest inhabitants,’ said Phillip Morin, a research molecular biologist at the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Illustration of new whale species by the Southwest Fisheries Research Center in San Diego
Illustration of new whale species by the Southwest Fisheries Research Center in San Diego

Morin led the study that confirmed the animal was distinct from previous known species, such as Baird’s beaked whale. His team built on earlier work by Japanese researchers, who sampled the corpses of three black-beaked whales that washed ashore on the north coast of Hokkaido in 2013, and first suggested the animal could be a new species, instead of a juvenile or dwarf form of Baird’s beaked whale.

With his team from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Research Center in San Diego, Morin sought specimens from all over the Pacific to try and match the genetic samples collected by the Japanese. The team analysed 178 beaked whale specimens from around the Pacific Rim and found five that matched the whales studied by the Japanese team, including one skull recovered from the Aleutian Islands in 1948 that was being kept in the Smithsonian Institution.

The skeleton of a new whale species hidden on full display in an Unalaska City School
The skeleton of a new whale species hidden on full display in an Unalaska City School

‘My first idea was to go to our collection, where we have the largest collection of cetacean samples in the world,’ Morin explained. One match was unearthed in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and another was found in tissue taken from a whale stranded on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians in 2004, which was on display in a local high school.

The next challenge is to locate a live animal—a tough task even though the species reaches at least 7 metres (24ft). Beaked whales typically spend long periods hunting squid in deep water, diving for up to 90 minutes on a single breath, and rarely dwelling on the surface for any extended time. Being black helps them blend into their background and they travel in small groups.

‘They’re hard to see, especially if the water is anything but perfectly calm,’ Morin cautioned, but he added that acoustic research could help locate the whale and allow scientists to study them.

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