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Whale's Deep Dive Stuns: 'Not Supposed to Be Able to Do This'

Cuvier's beaked whale goes under for a record 3 hours, 42 minutes without coming up for air
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 24, 2020 9:50 AM CDT

(Newser) – It's a mystery how Cuvier's beaked whales go so long without a gulp of air. Based on its body size and metabolism, scientists originally thought the whale would need to resurface every 33 minutes. But one beaked whale just went seven times as long underwater—3 hours, 42 minutes. In that time, you could've watched Titanic and still had an extra few minutes to dry your eyes. "We didn't believe it at first; these are mammals after all, and any mammal spending that long under water just seemed incredible," says Duke University marine biologist Nicola Quick, lead author of a study documenting the record-breaking descent, which bested the whale's previous record, set in 2014, by more than an hour. Though Cuvier's beaked whales generally stick to deep water, surfacing for just two minutes on average, Quick and colleagues managed to tag 23 near Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

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From 2014 to 2018, they monitored 3,680 foraging dives, when the whales feast on fish and squid at depths of more than 9,800 feet. About 5% were longer than 77 minutes, per Sky News. The record-breaking dive and another one clocking in at just shy of three hours came in 2017, in the weeks after a whale was exposed to a Navy sonar signal, a known stressor. "This is just so beyond what we've seen before," Andreas Fahlman, co-author of the study in the Journal of Experimental Biology, tells the New York Times. "They're not supposed to be able to do this." Quick tells Gizmodo that the whales can "reduce their energy expenditure" and have "lots of myoglobin in their muscles," which helps them hold oxygen. But "it's likely they have many other adaptations as well that we still don't fully understand, such as being able to reduce their heart rates and restrict the movement of blood flow to tissues." (Read more Cuvier's beaked whales stories.)

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