Sunday, June 16

Critically endangered whale seen off California coast: ‘Every sighting is incredibly valuable to us’

An extremely rare sighting has occurred off the coast of California and biologists say they are thrilled by the discovery.

A North Pacific right whale was spotted near Point Reyes by a marine wildlife team that was in the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Jenna Malek, North Pacific right whale recovery coordinator and marine mammal specialist, told Fox News Digital.

“This is very exciting for us because we know very little about where these whales go when they’re not in Alaska,” Malek said.

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“So this helps us to better understand some of the areas that they might be frequenting, what time of year they might be there and what type of activities they are doing.”

Malek said there have only been a few sightings of the mammal since the 1970s — with 15 of those reports recorded in California.

Right whales have very distinctive features, which is how the trained species observers were able to identify the whale as the rare North Pacific right whale.

Two distinguishing features include the V-shaped blow of the right whale — compared to the vertical spout of a humpback whale.

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Right whales also have what is referred to as “calluses” on their heads.

“These are white patches of rough skin that have things like barnacles on them, and those are actually what we use to identify individual right whales, because it’s sort of like a fingerprint,” Malek said.

“So the pattern doesn’t change as the whale ages, and so we could get a picture of that and say, ‘Oh, we’ve sighted this whale previously based on this information.'”

Due to the rocky conditions in the sea at the time of the sighting in late May, the observers were not able to get a solid look at the calluses on the head of the North Pacific right whale to determine its identity.

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Based on the footage captured by the observation crew, the whale was believed to be in a state of behavior called “milling,” in which it was resting on the surface and not traveling in a specific direction or actively feeding.

“This whale just seemed to be taking it easy because it wasn’t moving … and so, because of that slow breath pace and the lack of movement in any given direction, it’s likely that it was resting or sleeping,” Malek said.

The location of this sighting adds to its rarity because less than 50 North Pacific right whales make up the eastern population.

In the entirety of the species on the eastern and western sides, only 300 to 400 remain, Malek said.

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“There’s a population that’s on the western side of the North Pacific off of Russia and Japan, and this population is doing a little bit better than the ones we have here off the coast of the U.S. and Canada, but we don’t know enough about them,” the marine specialist added.

Based on the genetic analysis that her team has been conducting, they do not believe that any sort of interbreeding has taken place between the eastern and western North Pacific right whales, but there are believed to be a limited number of breeding females.

Malek said there are still many things about the North Pacific right whale the team is hoping to learn; sightings like this play a large role in discovering behaviors and habits of this rare mammal.

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“We have not been able to identify any definitive migratory pathway or breeding and calving area for the North Pacific right whales, and that includes looking at historical whaling logs,” the expert added.

“There’s nothing that really stands out as a place that they’re going from point A to point B pretty consistently every year, so seeing them off of California is interesting for us,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily indicate that this is [an] ecologically important area for them, but it does tell us that this whale may have been in Alaska or may have been further north, but now it’s in California.”

Aside from Alaska, California has become the location with the highest number of North Pacific right whale sightings.

Malek said there has been an increase in sightings recently and, while that does not necessarily mean that the population is increasing, it does mean that people are able to identify them and are better at reporting their findings.

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For those who may come across this endangered species while in the water, the team says it’s best to report the discovery to np.rw@noaa.gov and an expert will respond to verify the sighting.

“We encourage folks to take pictures from a respectful distance. Collect that kind of information and then report it to our fisheries because each and every single sighting is incredibly valuable to us.”

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