Type D killer whale
A Type D killer whale spotted by the expedition. Photo by Paul Tixier

A scientific team led by a San Diego researcher has identified what could be a new species of killer whale in the storm-tossed waters off southern Chile.

Called Type D, the whales were previously known only from a beach stranding more than 60 years ago, fishermen’s stories, and tourist photographs.

The expedition on the 72-foot research vessel Australis in January was organized by Bob Pitman, a researcher from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and included five other scientists from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Argentina.

Among the scientists was Lisa Ballance, adjunct professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and director of the Marine Mammal & Turtle Research Division at Southwest Fisheries.

Genetic samples the team collected with a crossbow dart will help determine whether this animal, with its distinct color pattern and body shape, is in fact new to science.

“We are very excited about the genetic analyses to come. Type D killer whales could be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet and a clear indication of how little we know about life in our oceans,” said Pitman, who has been searching for the animal for 14 years.

The team’s encounter with the distinctive whales came after it spent more than a week at anchor, waiting out the perpetual storms of Cape Horn off southern Chile.

“In a word, the experience was intense,” said Ballance, who teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in marine biology. “It was absolutely awesome, to be in such a remote and challenging environment in the company of a group of killer whales that look strikingly different from any others on the planet, and could be a different species. Truly a biologist’s dream come true.”

Compared to other killer whales, the Type D have more rounded heads, a narrower and more pointed dorsal fin, and a tiny white eye patch.

In the next few months, the DNA samples should finally reveal just how different the Type D is from other killer whales.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.