Here, a very rare photo of these beautiful animals swimming.
Photo: J.P. Sylvestre, South Georgia, 2011 (NOAA)

In 1955, 17 killer whales were found stranded on a beach in Paraparaumu, New Zealand. Scientists thought they looked weird, but they shrugged it off as some type of genetic deformity. Since then, the whale has been something of an urban legend until fishermen and tourists began capturing rare images of the animals.

A team of international scientists—from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Argentina—finally embarked on an expedition in January to see if they could find these so-called Type D killer whales. According to an announcement issued Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they succeeded: A curious pod of about 30 whales appeared to the researchers off the southern tip of Chile and stuck with the team for more than three hours. This marks the very first scientific expedition to collect data on the animals.

Taken under Chilean Sub-Secretary of Fisheries and Aquaculture Research Permit, Res. Ex. 1811 and Res. Ex. 4402

“We are, as scientists, increasingly in the business of trying to protect and conserve marine biodiversity,” Lisa Ballance, the director of the Marine Mammal and Turtle Research Division with NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center who witnessed the animals, told Earther. “In order to do that, the very first thing we need to know is how many species are there. This expedition and data we were able to collect will go a long way toward answering that question.”

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Before this trip, all people really knew about Type D killer whales was where others had spotted them: the southern Indian Ocean, New Zealand, and especially south of Chile. That was all the information the team needed to go and learn more. Now, the team has three pencil eraser-sized samples of blood and tissue that scientists will run genetic tests on to determine if the Type D killer whale is, in fact, an entirely new species. It very well could be.

The top image shows the killer whale we are all used to, but you can see this potentially new species’ odd qualities in the bottom illustratration. It’s got a smaller eye patch with a pointier dorsal fin and a funny round head.
Illustration: Uko Gorter (NOAA)

The animal features some notable differences from other killer whales, including a white eye mark that’s dramatically reduced in size, a dorsal fin narrower and pointier than usual, and a signature round head. It looks more chill and stoner than your usual killer whale.

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However, it traverses subantarctic waters where other types of killer whales swim, too. And there’s a chance these killer whales are facing issues similar to those of its relatives.

Along with tourists, fishermen are the ones who’ve sighted these animals the most. As a result, scientists already know that the Type D killer whale and humans share at least one interest: the toothfish, known more commonly as the Chilean sea bass. Apparently, the killer whales aren’t shy when about going right up to fishing vessels and pulling on their lines to steal their fish, Ballance said.  That may be why the whales were so willing to approach the research vessel, she hypothesized—in the hopes that it was a fishing boat. However, this behavior creates a conflict that marine ecologists can’t ignore.

“It’s a huge problem for [Chilean long liners]. It’s what we call depredation,” she told Earther. “They are having a hard time getting away from the killer whales. It was almost comical because when we were down there, we were doing everything we could to find the [Type D] killer whales, and they’re doing everything they could to get away from them.”

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While there’s no indication Chilean fishermen have reacted aggressively to Type D killer whales, other fishermen have been known to illegally shoot at depredating whales. After all, the whales’ behavior threatens their livelihood.

Besides conflict with humans, there’s another obvious threat: climate change. The team still has so much to learn about the whales and how this global crisis may be impacting them, but we already know climate change is warming the oceans, which messes with marine ecosystems in countless ways. These animals might not deal with the awful vessel traffic other whales do, but they live near some of the world’s fastest-warming waters north of the Antarctic Peninsula.

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For now, scientists need to learn the basics. How many Type D killer whales exist, what else do they eat, what threatens them, and are they healthy or are they at risk? So many questions remain, but one thing is certain: The ocean remains full of mystery and potential discoveries.

Ballance put it best: “The fact that there’s such a distinct, unique, and different type of killer whale swimming in the Southern Ocean about which we know practically nothing is inspiring and awesome all at the same time.”