Secrets of the Deepest Diving Whales

Latest update February 14, 2019 Started on November 9, 2018

Follow along as we study the sounds and behaviors of beaked and sperm whales, the deepest diving marine mammals. Off the coast of North and South Carolina between January and May, 2019, we'll be conducting passive acoustic surveys and attaching tags to better understand how these animals behave long after they dip below the surface and are long out of direct view.

November 9, 2018
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In The Field

Roses are red
Beaked whales are cryptics Deep diving champions Of the aquatic Olympics

Happy Valentine's day, whale lovers. Who doesn't love whales eh? The thing is, most people don't even know about the many different types of whales. Humpbacks get all the glory because they're so theatrical... But we think beaked whales, especially, don't get enough love. Probably because they are so flipping hard to study. They are the quintessential "cryptic" species.

Beaked whales, such as Cuvier's beaked whale, are much smaller than sperm whales, and therefore harder to detect at the sea surface, and they can dive for longer periods (routine deep foraging dives are 45 minutes to an hour) and to deeper depths.

Some beaked whales have been recorded to dive to almost 3000 m – that is almost two miles in depth! Talk about playing hard to get.

While at these extraordinary depths, they use echolocation (essentially animal radar) to find their prey, which are deep-water cephalopods (squids and octopuses). After their deep foraging (feeding) dives, they return to the surface, but spend little time there. Instead they undertake a series of relatively shallow dives (many of which are still deeper than most whales will ever dive!), and then embark on their next deep foraging dive. For the species that have been investigated to date, they carry out this diving behavior 24-7, making them extremely difficult to detect.

So these are some of the mysterious animals our crew are listening to and trying to spot out off the coast of North Carolina. We'll try our best to get some decent photos but these critters are notoriously camera shy! Meanwhile, here's a Cuvier's Beaked Whale, spotted just the other day. And our gorgeous crew, who spend a lot of time staring out to sea...

Photos by MAPS & MCR, NMFS Permit 14809

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The good news is we found beaked whales today, the bad news is we couldn't deploy a tag. Beaten by choppy seas and a rather persistent Gulf Stream that had us traveling backwards at three knots even under moderate revs.

Even in the best conditions these whales are really hard to find, they are “cryptic” species. This is a term scientists use for creatures that are hard to find or study. Even though they’re air-breathing mammals, they spend most of their time away from the surface, diving on a breath-hold. When they are away from the surface, they are effectively invisible to us. That might list seconds to minutes (think small active dolphins that don’t dive deeply), or for over an hour (think deep-diving sperm and beaked whales). It is this latter group, species that can disappear from the water’s surface and routinely spend long periods of time on a dive that we call “cryptic” species.

Their natural and amazing diving behaviors render them virtually invisible to us. And that behavior presents specific challenges to us, if we want to know where they are and what they are doing there, so that we do not negatively impact them. Thus, the MAPS team is gathering many types of data on these species, to strengthen efforts to avoid or limit the impacts they might experience from human activities, such as energy resource development.

Listening to the whales through Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) really helps us get to know them better. In contrast with active acoustics, which produces sound, passive acoustics means we're just listening to what's out there. To do this, we're towing a hydrophone on a 400m cable (an array) behind the boat. The array has 6 elements, which are used to listen to different ranges of frequencies (for different types of whales) and can give us an idea of which direction these sounds are coming from. With the directional capability and the broad acoustic bandwidth, we can even make pretty good guesses as to how many sperm and beaked whales we're hearing!

Because the Song of the Whale is such a quiet vessel, it is perfect for listening to the whales. Stay tuned for some of whale sounds we’re picking up right now, and the info they are providing.

Photos below - the watching and waiting pays off with a Cuvier's beaked whale. Pics by MAPS and MCR crew, NMFS Permit 14809.

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Tag on!

Friday was an exciting day on Song Of The Whale! We successfully deployed the project’s first D-tag (a high-resolution digital acoustic recording tag) on a sperm whale - this is the first time a sperm whale has been tagged in this area to our knowledge, certainly not in winter, so their deep diving and foraging behavior in this area of the Atlantic are completely unknown. There are deep submarine canyons in the area, but are they using them? How deep are they diving? The tag data will give us a window into these unknowns.

After the tag was deployed, Laura hopped on the RHIB with the thermal camera and ventured out to collect images. Thermal images capture the surface temperatures of whales, which will help us understand the energetics of their diving and foraging behaviors. Laura was able to collect consecutive images of the tagged sperm whale after its dive – the first time such data have ever been collected on a tagged whale!

But about 6 hours later, disaster - we couldn’t find the tag!

The focal animal was seen 5h20m after the 6 hour tag had been deployed; Andrew and Zach were able to get a successful biopsy from the whale at that time but then lost sight of the animal when it fluked up for a long dive. We searched through the night to no avail; we're back on our transect now heading further offshore and we're still scanning for a signal but we think the chances of tag recovery are fairly minimal at this stage.

We're all disappointed on board as you can imagine; but we did manage to collect some good data.

In more positive news, we are seeing occasional baleen whales on our transect, and we're getting a lot of acoustic detections of sperm whales, so there is plenty of life out in the depths.

The images show the tag deployment, the tagged animal alongside another sperm whale, the tag boat working among the group of whales and a large, heavily scarred male that was at the center of the group of 16.

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Leg 1 is complete!

Pic of the very happy crew below - one day back on shore and then it's back out for Leg 2. Here's a short account of the first few days by UNCW Masters student, Laura Murley, who is participating in every leg of the research.

First days aboard Song of the Whale Using thermal images to analyze the surface temperature of cetaceans Laura Murley, UNCW

As we set sail on January 17​th​, the thermal camera remained stowed away in its pelican case below decks. One of my roles on board is to capture infrared images of the cetaceans we encounter, to better understand the thermal biology pelagic species, especially deep-divers. IR thermal images will be collected throughout each sighting using a FLIR P60 IR camera, mounted side-by-side with a video camera on a monopod.

The increasing wind speeds and heightened swells, though, meant thermal imaging would have to wait for calmer seas! The first few days aboard Song of the Whale allowed members from SOTW, UNCW, and Duke to get to know each other, to learn the survey methods and to understand the workings of the vessel.

We encountered a few cetaceans including sei whales and a minke whale and heard loud sperm whale clicks through the hydrophone. Although this first trip was relatively short, we look forward to traveling on our next set of track lines with to conduct more visual and acoustic surveys and with the hopes of capturing thermal images!


The MAPS team went back into port due to rough weather (45 kn winds and 4-5 m swells) and since the weather was looking dicey for the rest of the week they dropped off 3 crew and went back out with 7 to run hydrophones and do visual obs.

With our primary species of interest: beaked, sperm whales and kogiids, the acoustics are actually much better at detecting them than visual and normal sea conditions.

I asked Anna Clabaugh from Duke University Marine Lab, who is on SOTW, about the different jobs the team have on board. This is what she told me: ~~~ "When we had 10 people on we were running 4 types of watches during good weather when it was light out and 2 during rough seas/at night.

Port Observer (day): watching for whales, dolphins, fishing activity, rubbish on the port side

Helmsperson: makes sure we are following the right bearing, checking for other boats or other obstacles.

Data Logger: filling out effort and environment forms, listens every two minutes to the hydrophone and records what they hear

Starboard Observer (day): same as port observer just from starboard side

Right now we are combining the 4 jobs into two with helmsperson as port obs and data logger as starboard obs. At least until the weather deteriorates more. Before it took about 7 hours to run through the watches now it’s more like 5.

Everyone on the boat also cooks and cleans. Everyday rotates who's on dinner duty, dinner washup, heads, or vacuuming."

~~~ So keeping everything shipshape and Bristol fashion then…

Meanwhile for entertainment they’ve enjoyed some bow riding dolphins and listening to sperm whales on the hydrophone.

9pm EST Tuesday 22 January
Ocean swell is around 1.5m, it’s a balmy 11 degrees C and a little cloud cover. Things have quieted down a bit, meteorologically speaking, and today we received this brief message from Doug Novacek (Duke University Marine Lab):

Headed back out after a day on shore for bad weather. Weather not great offshore but going to make the most of it with acoustic transects for beaked, sperm and kogiid whales.

What’s an acoustic transect I hear you say?

Glad you asked. Basically it means sailing a line dragging hydrophones to listen to what’s going on down there. Different types of hydrophones can be calibrated to pick up clicks, whistles, mid and low frequency sounds from marine mammals. They can be used to characterize levels of noise, including whale vocalizations, ship and background noise.

Song of the Whale is a fantastic research vessel with some brilliant technology on board (and people!), we’ll be showcasing the boat on future posts here and you can also check out their site -

For now, our crew are sailing these lines, or transects, and trying to pick up the sounds of beaked, sperm and kogiid whales. The info we get from the hydrophones will help draw the picture of the abundance, behavior and distribution of these animals.

We don’t have many exciting photos to show yet but here are some of our crew and Skipper Richard McLanaghan demonstrating how to nap on a rough day.

More photos, video and whale song soon...

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And we’re off! After years of planning, on 17 January 2019, the R/V Song of the Whale (SOTW) sailed out of Beaufort, NC, to begin the first leg of the #MAPS2019 research cruises.

The plan is that SOTW will sail survey lines for 14 days in each leg - there will be three legs in total and in between the boat will come back to Beaufort for restocking and swapping crew etc. The turn around is 24 hours and away they go again.

Well that's the plan anyway! Except there’s the weather… we just heard there's some gnarly weather coming so the team are coming back to port now to avoid it. Meanwhile, here’s a message we received from the Chief Scientist on board, Dr Doug Nowacek of Duke University Marine Lab:

First update! Southernmost trackline done, most of it in the dark, lots of sperm whales through the night. Heading NE now on the second trackline, trying to get it done before we get a puff of wind, probably be off effort for ~12 hrs, then back to it. Big sighting of the day was a sei whale! sea state was ~3, good thing they have big dorsal fins!

More to come...

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Four years ago I ran an idea by a friend at work - that we could do more to understand the whales that are harder to see and hear, those deep diving species which are infrequently seen. Four years of proposals, paperwork, planning calls, and research and it's almost here.

This just got real.

Our research vessel, the R/V Song of the Whale, arrived in Beaufort, NC the other day.

Check out this story

Great Project! I wonder if you have anyone looking at fish sounds in your recordings? Few people have done so in the Atlantic.

I mean of deep water fish of course!

With a little over a month until our first research cruise departs the dock, the team has been busy getting everything together. Survey lines have been laid out and split up into 15 day legs. We're working on scheduling to ensure we have time between cruises to have open houses for people to visit us at the dock, or even virtually through streaming web tours and question and answer sessions. Meanwhile, our research vessel, Song of the Whale, just checked in from the middle of the Atlantic on their way to North Carolina. It will be a busy few weeks ahead, stay tuned!


We have a pretty special research vessel for this project. The Sailing Research Vessel (SRV) Song of the Whale. The SRV Song of the Whale is one of the only vessels in the world built especially for acoustic research on whales. Their joining the rest of our team in North Carolina later this month after finishing up a survey in the Mediterranean. Just got word they passed the Canary Islands and are on their way!

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Expedition Background

Hi there and thanks for visiting our expedition site!

I'm Jake, a Marine Biologist at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Duke University and Marine Conservation Research, I am working to understand the acoustic behavior of the world's deepest diving, but rarely seen, marine animals.

When you think of whales, the word cryptic doesn't really come to mind, but believe it or not, there are still species of whales that surface so infrequently, are so rarely observed and we know so little about, that we call them cryptic. The goal of the Marine Mammal Acoustic and Spatial Ecology (MAPS) project is to expand what we know about the behavior and ecology of these cryptic species that call the waters of the United States their home.

Understanding these cryptic cetacean species allows us to update what we know about their distribution in the Atlantic, improve our surveys for them in other regions of the US, and in some cases, verify or establish what we know about their acoustic behavior or cue rates (Basically how often they make sounds and during what behaviors).

Stay tuned here as we update our digital field journal along the way!


Really exciting project! Looking forward to seeing your updates !

Hi Jake, your project sounds fantastic, I look forward to hearing about your findings.

Thanks for following along!

We'd love you to come to Senegal too! :-)

This is really exciting!

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