When three beaked whales surfaced next to Jay Barlow's boat, he was excited. He and his colleagues had traveled north of Mexico's remote San Benito Islands to search for the elusive whales, which spend most of their time at depths of 3,000 feet. "It's very rare to even see a beaked whale, and to find a friendly group of beaked whales, it's even rarer," Barlow tells Reuters. It was only later, while reviewing photos, videos, and audio recordings of the Nov. 17 encounter, that his heart skipped a beat, per CNN. The whales' teeth were in an unusual position, and their calls were unlike anything recorded before, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which organized the trip. As Barlow notes, "we might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible—finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science."
The group had been trying to identify the source of an acoustic signal other researchers had tied to Perrin's beaked whale, of which a live specimen has never been observed, when the three whales surfaced. Barlow, a marine mammal biologist at the San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says he's now confident they were not Perrin's beaked whales, per the AP. The scientists hope to confirm the discovery by analyzing water samples that might hold skin cells, which could be DNA tested. If a new species is confirmed, it will be the 24th known species of beaked whale, which gets its name from its dolphin-like snout. "It is a huge animal, the weight of a Clydesdale horse," Barlow tells Reuters. "Imagine something that big in the terrestrial realm going undiscovered." He adds, "it just sends chills up and down my spine." (Another beaked whale set a diving record.)