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One of world's rarest whales sighted off California coast

One of world’s rarest whales sighted off California coast
North Pacific right whale. Credit: EBLNA Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In an extraordinary sighting, a critically endangered North Pacific right whale was spotted off the Marin County coast on Friday, thrilling scientists.

One of the rarest whales in the world, only an estimated 30 animals are thought to survive.

"It was astonishing," said research ecologist Jan Roletto, who sighted the whale about three miles west of Point Reyes National Seashore while aboard a for the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies.

Visibility was tough on Friday, with waves and fierce winds that pushed 12 to 14-foot swells. The mission of the research team's weeklong trip, a partnership between Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries and Point Blue Conservation Science, was to survey marine wildlife.

But the whale was unmistakable.

"It came up right in front of us," then lingered for nearly 20 minutes, said Roletto, research coordinator for the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries.

Standing together on the ship's viewing platform, Roletto and marine ecologist Kirsten Lindquist instantly turned to look at each other.

"We both knew immediately what it was," Roletto said. The identification has since been officially confirmed by the NOAA Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle, based on photos and video.

The whale had a distinctive V-shaped blow. Wide and pitch black, it had no dorsal fin. And there was at least one cluster of telltale "callosities" on the head, rough and white skin patches.

"It seemed to be resting," Roletto said. "It wasn't feeding. It wasn't traveling. It would move a little bit, then sink down."

They once numbered in the tens of thousands throughout the North Pacific.

Like other whales, the species was driven nearly to extinction by in the 1800s. Hunters named them the "right" whale to kill because they're easy targets. They swim slowly and near shore, have thick blubber and float when killed, according to Jessica Crance, a research biologist with the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. It is estimated that between 21,000–30,000 right whales were slaughtered in the North Pacific in a single decade.

By 1900 they were already considered commercially extinct—meaning their numbers were so low they weren't worth the effort of trying to catch.

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling banned the commercial hunting of right whales in the North Pacific in 1937, and their numbers began to climb.

But illegal Soviet whaling in the 1960s in the northern Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea again pushed the species toward extinction.

They have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. But unlike other species of whales—such as humpbacks, gray whales and blue whales—populations of the North Pacific have been much slower to recover. Its cousin in the Southern Hemisphere is faring somewhat better.

While whaling is no longer a threat, human activity such as entanglement in and marine debris, vessel strikes, impacts from , oil and gas development and ocean noise continue to threaten the species.

According to Crance, there are only an estimated 30 individuals left in U.S. waters, and that number was based on data that is more than 15 years old.

"When their historical distribution is in a remote region with notoriously bad weather, finding even a single animal becomes a search for the proverbial 'needle in a haystack," " Crance wrote in the Journal of the American Cetacean Society.

North Pacific right whales are baleen whales, which feed by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their comb-like baleen plates that trap copepods and other zooplankton.

Because they are so rare, very little is known about the movements, migration, breeding or calving of the North Pacific species, said Jim Scarff, an independent whale researcher in Berkeley. Satellite tagging offered detailed movement data when the whales were in the Bering Sea, but all tags fell off before the animals left the region, so their travel routes remain a mystery.

"There is remarkably little understanding about their distribution," said Scarff..

Acoustic surveys offer a new approach to track the whales. Using specialized software, U.S. and Canadian biologists are now collaborating in an acoustic study to detect right whale calls along the British Columbia coast.

But vessel-based surveys are still the best means for obtaining information on an individual animal, according to Crance.

In the past decade, there have been a handful of detections off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington State and California. In March 2023, whale watchers saw one close to shore near Point Pinos in Monterey Bay. In April 2022, a fisherman reported a sighting near San Mateo County's Point Ano Nuevo.

"It's always one individual animal, often in the spring," said Scarff. "And then it's never seen again."

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Citation: One of world's rarest whales sighted off California coast (2024, May 28) retrieved 23 July 2024 from https://phys.org/news/2024-05-world-rarest-whales-sighted-california.html
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