Right whales are so named because they were the “right” whale to hunt. They’re known for being slow-moving, and they float on the surface after being killed.
“It’s estimated that between 26,000 and 37,000 animals were taken in only a handful of decades,” said Jessica Crance, a Research Biologist at the Marine Mammal Lab at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “And then they became the target of illegal Soviet whaling in the 1960s. And that decimated what was left of the population and brought them down to what we think are their current numbers.”
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, there are about 30 members of the Eastern Group of North Pacific right whales left in the wild. They live in Alaska waters, and there are only a handful of sightings in a decade. But last month, survey vessels encountered two different groups of right whales, each with two different individuals. That may not sound like much, but those four whales make up over 10% of Alaska’s right whale population.
Both sightings occurred near Kodiak Island, with the first sighting being on the morning of Aug. 21 around the Barnabas Trough west of Kodiak Island. The second sighting was on the Aug. 24, near the Trinity Islands on the west end of Kodiak.
Crance witnessed both sightings personally, and is among a handful of living people who have seen one of this population of right whales up close since the species was devastated by commercial whaling.
According to her, NOAA biologists found the whales when they went looking for them.
“We had marine mammal observers that were looking for marine mammals from two different platforms. And the purpose of the survey was to get distribution density and abundance estimation for large whale species in the area. And so it was during the survey that we had two different sightings of North Pacific right whales,” she said.
She says right whales are easy to identify.
“When you’re looking at a right whale, they have a very pronounced V-shaped blow. So if you happen to see a distinctive V in the blow pattern, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a right whale,” she said.
While infrequent sightings make it difficult to gauge population trends, there is some good news. Two of the four whales spotted were completely new individuals, that until then had never been logged by researchers. The other two animals are known to biologists — one was seen nearby in 2006 and the other had been seen earlier this year off the coast of British Columbia.