A group of scientists spotted two rare whales in the Bering Sea over the weekend. A research vessel from the National and Atmospheric Administration was searching for North Pacific right whales, and they finally got lucky.

NOAA said Thursday they were able to photograph two of the animals on Sunday and they obtained a biopsy sample from one of them.

A group of scientists spotted a rare whale in the Bering Sea over the weekend. Image credit: Knom
A group of scientists spotted a rare whale in the Bering Sea over the weekend. Image credit: Knom

Jessica Crance, a NOAA Fisheries research biologist, was one of the scientists aboard the Yushin Maru 2 when the endangered whales were seen. The vessel is part of the Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research Program, a collaborative effort led by the International Whaling Commission.

Two North Pacific right whales were tracked using an acoustic recorder

On Sunday, Crance was aboard the ship using an acoustic recorder to pick up any signs from North Pacific right whales. While using the recorder, she picked up faint calls of a right whale among the sounds of walrus and killer whales. The calls came east of Bristol Bay, Alaska.

In a blog entry, Crance explained the sounds came from an estimated 10 to 32 miles (16 to 51 kilometers) away, and the ship turned west. The scientists spent about four and a half hours looking for the animals, and despite the presence of humpback and minke whales, they finally spotted the rare whales.

Crance is part of an international team studying large whales in the Bering Sea this summer. The team arrived from Dutch Harbor in July to conduct the International Whaling Commission’s Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research (POWER) survey. This marks the 8th year of the POWER initiative. NOAA expects to study the entirety of the Bering Sea over the next three years.

Phillip Clapham, head of the cetacean program at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said the two right whales spotted over the weekend are part of the eastern stock of the species that now has just 30 to 50 whales.

In 1835, a French whaling ship recorded the first kill of the species and reported seeing “millions” of them. Clapham said that while that claim was exaggerated, it caused hundreds of whalers to sail to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea to hunt the whales. Over the next 14 years, the overharvest of the slow animals sent whalers through the Bering Strait to hunt bowhead whales instead, according to Clapham.

Image credit: AP / Boston Herald
Image credit: AP / Boston Herald

North Pacific right whales are critically endangered

In the 20th century, the North Pacific right whales had repopulated the area moderately. However, the comeback was sabotaged when Soviet whalers in the 1960s ignored critically low numbers of the species and illegally killed eastern stock right whales in the Gulf of Alaska, noted Clapham.

Clapham noted the right whale sampled over the weekend had been spotted eight times before. The last time it was seen was ten years ago. Biopsy samples performed on these whales can positively identify them, reveal their gender (if it’s a female they can identify whether it’s pregnant) and it can also reveal information on reproductive hormones and diet.

Scientists say studying North Pacific right whales is particularly complicated by the expense of reaching their habitat in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. Critical information on the behavior of these whales remains unknown, such as their winter habits and most of their preferred summer feeding areas for copepods, a small crustacean plankton.

“We don’t know what habitats continue to be important to the species,” said Clapham, according to The Washington Post.

Clapham also noted the biggest threats to the North Pacific right whales are fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes.

Dead whales found in Gulf of St. Andrews crashed onto ships

In mid-July, a Canadian veteran fisherman died after untangling a North Pacific right whale that was caught in commercial fishing gear. The fisherman, Joe Howlett, was the co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, a conservationist group that helps endangered whales when they became tangled in fishing gear.

However, after Howlett disentangled the whale, the animal made a big flip and hit him, causing his death. That incident caused NOAA to announce it was suspending efforts to free entangled whales found in the ocean. NOAA Fisheries public affairs spokeswoman Kate Brogan said the administration was suspending all whale entanglement response activities until further notice. However, she noted NOAA would review its emergency response protocols.

Researchers at Allied Whale in Bar Harbor said at the time they hoped NOAA would at least consider particular whale rescue efforts on a case-by-case basis.

Over the last weeks, several North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in Canada’s Gulf of St. Andrews. Most of the dead whales showed signs of blunt trauma, which suggested that most crashed onto ships or vessels. In July, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans urged commercial sailors to reduce their ships’ speeds and to share any whale sightings.

Source: The Washington Post