It had been about a decade since it was last sighted, but the critically endangered North Pacific right whale got spotted in the Bering Sea, according to new reports.
The Washington Post wrote that the sighting took place last Sunday, August 6, when a research vessel had taken photos of two of these extremely rare whales, as well as a biopsy sample from one of them. On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had confirmed the sighting, which came soon after researchers heard the whales’ distinctive calls amid killer whale and walrus cries.
The discovery was made by NOAA Fisheries research biologist Jessica Crance, who was on board the Yushin Maru 2, using an acoustic recorder to pick up animal sounds in the Bering Sea. On Sunday, she was able to pick up strains of a North Pacific right whale call from east of Bristol Bay, Alaska, about 10 to 32 miles from where the ship was at that point.
Crance added that it took about four and a half hours for the ship to spot the right whales, an impressive feat considering the high numbers of minke and humpback whales in the sea. According to NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center cetacean program head Phillip Clapham, the two North Pacific right whales are believed to be part of the eastern stock, which is made up of only 30 to 50 whales as of the moment.
Speaking to NBC affiliate KTUU, Alaska Fisheries Science Center communications program manager Maggie Mooney-Seus said that the discovery was an “exciting” one and a huge breakthrough in right whale research.
“What was exciting was, you know, we don’t have a lot of opportunity to find these. Because it’s like finding a needle in a haystack, when you have a population this small and you’re looking for them in the eastern Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska – it’s a pretty big area to cover.”
Mooney-Seus added that the North Pacific right whale is the rarest whale that can be found in U.S. waters. And to further underscore the whale’s rarity, NOAA’s Clapham said that the whale that was sampled on Sunday had previously been spotted eight times, with the last sighting taking place a decade ago.
The North Pacific right whale wasn’t always this rare, Clapham further noted, telling the Washington Post that French whalers had once reported its numbers as reaching “millions.” That may have been an exaggerated claim, but it took just 14 years for whaling and over-harvesting to reduce the whales’ population significantly. And while the right whales made a “modest” comeback in the 20th century, Soviet whalers deliberately ignored the low numbers, and killed eastern stock right whales illegally in the 1960s.
Going forward, Clapham and other NOAA officials hope to gather more data on the North Pacific right whale, specifically the animals’ winter tendencies and their usual summer feeding spots. He added that it still isn’t sure which habitats are the most important to ensuring the species’ survival, though the top threats to the whales include ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear.
[Featured Image by NOAA Fisheries/AP Images]