A critically endangered species, right whales are so rare that it has always been a challenge for researchers and scientists to find them. But last year, scientists spotted two of them for the first time in a decade.
Two right whales were spotted and photographed in the Bering Sea, and one of them had a biopsy sample obtained by a research vessel, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The right whale sampled had been seen eight times before, said Phillip Clapham, head of the cetacean program at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. A biopsy sample, he said, can identify the animal and its gender; it can also reveal whether the animal is pregnant, along with its reproductive hormones and diet.
While NOAA research biologist Jessica Crance was on board the Yushin Maru 2, she spotted the two right whales. Using an acoustic recorder, Crance distinguished faint calls of a right whale between the sounds of walruses and killer whales in the east of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
The sounds were detected about 32 miles away. Crance’s team spent four and a half hours heading west to track the whales down. The two right whales are part of 30 to 50 whales of the eastern stock.
“A French whaling ship recorded the first kill in 1835 and reported seeing ‘millions’ of others. That claim was exaggerated but it drew hundreds of other whalers to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea,” said Clapham, as reported by The Associated Press. “Within 14 years, the overharvest of the slow, buoyant animals sent many whalers through the Bering Strait to hunt bowhead whales instead.”
And in the 1960s, Soviet whalers illegally killed eastern stock right whales in the Gulf of Alaska, despite the species being critically endangered.
The challenge of finding North Pacific right whales lies in the difficulty of finding their habitat in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.
“We don’t know what habitats continue to be important to the species,” Clapham said.
“The biggest threats to the animals are fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes,” he added.
Right whales can grow up to 59 feet (18 m) long, and weigh 100 short tons (91 t; 89 long tons). They are much larger than other coastal species but smaller than blues. With V-shaped blow holes and dark gray or black skin, their most distinguishing feature is white patches on their heads, caused by whale lice.
Source: The Associated Press.