Why the Recent Sighting of Right Whales off Alaska is Such a Big Deal

Guest post by: Dana Wright, PhD Candidate in the Marine Science and Conservation Program at the Duke University Marine Laboratory.

You’ve probably heard of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, but did you know that a different species of right whale lives off Alaska? With only 31 animals left in the population that swims in the northeast Pacific and sub-Arctic, the North Pacific right whale is one of the whale species most likely to go extinct in our lifetime. It’s also a whale with a perplexing mystery.

The mystery of the North Pacific right whale

Even though tens of thousands of right whales were hunted and killed in the North Pacific by commercial whalers in the 19th century, we know surprising little about them. The population that swims near Alaska, known as the eastern population, has a perplexing mystery – the whales disappear for half the year. We know that they look for food in summer months in cold, productive waters at high latitudes, but we do not know where they swim to in winter. Finding where they go in winter is essential to their conservation and recovery, because winter is when we believe females are giving birth and nursing their calves. Therefore, it would have devastating effects to the population if even one female or calf gets accidentally caught in fishing gear or struck by a ship.

One step closer to solving the mystery

On a clear, sunny day in late August, a group of ten scientists spotted two right whales from a boat off Kodiak, Alaska. Three days later, these same scientists saw two different right whales less than 100 nautical miles from the first encounter. As a North Pacific right whale scientist, I was ecstatic to hear the news!

Excitingly, one of the animals seen off Kodiak was also seen less than two months prior, off Haidii Gwaii, British Columbia. This is the first time the same individual right whale has been seen in two different parts of the Northeast Pacific in the same year! This sighting provides us with one small but very important clue toward understanding their mystery of migration.

Thanks to the sightings this summer, we know that British Columbia might be an important stopover site for some right whales on their way to Alaska. This revelation might help contextualize the right whale seen off British Columbia in June 2013, which was the first sighting in those waters in 62 years! Since then, right whales have been seen five additional times, including the June sighting off the west coast of Vancouver Island this summer.

That said, the mystery of where they migrate to in winter is still unknown. Right whales have been seen off the California coastline seven times in spring since 1990. In addition, a right whale was seen off Hawaii in April 1996.  Could these sightings mean that right whales spend their winters off California and Hawaii? Possibly. But they could also mean that right whales are simply swimming by these areas as part of a bigger migration to other areas. We’re still trying to figure out exactly what these sightings signify.

What you can do to help

Because these animals are so rare, we have very few sightings of these animals. Most sightings actually come from the general public! These encounters offer crucial insight into their winter mystery. An excellent way that you can help this species is to keep a look out for them when you’re recreating. These whales are still roaming the Pacific and sub-Arctic – even if we know little about where or when. Every confirmed sighting of a right whale is extremely valuable and provides researchers with key knowledge about their habitat and movement patterns. Keep a look out if you happen to be anywhere in the Pacific! But especially if you are recreating along the North American West Coast, Mexican West Coast, Central American West Coast, Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, or Hawaiian Islands. A photograph or video of the whale is most useful to scientists, because we can use the photograph like a fingerprint to identify individual animals and study their movement patterns.

If you believe you have encountered a North Pacific right whale, photograph the left and right side of the head, while obeying national and state laws for viewing wildlife, and email the photographs and the location of your sighting to np.rw@noaa.gov.

North Pacific right whales can only be a part of our collective present and future if we take action to manage and protect them. Public awareness if one of the best ways to help scientists get the attention of policymakers and acquire the funds needed to conserve this species. The Wikipedia page on North Pacific right whales is an excellent resource written and maintained by a right whale scientist. There is also a documentary in production on North Pacific right whale conservation by Deep Green Wilderness based in Seattle, WA. Sharing the story of the North Pacific right whale is a great way to show public support of their conservation.

Why are they so endangered?

North Pacific right whales were an integral part of the Pacific Northwest and the American past. A 2019 study identified right whale bones at whaling sites of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations dating back 500 years. While it’s not believed that North Pacific right whales were ever the dominant species targeted by First Nations in the Pacific Northwest, these findings support that right whales had been in coexistence with Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations for at least centuries before they were slaughtered to near extinction by white settlers as well as the Japanese and the former Soviet Union in the 19th and 20th centuries.

An estimated 28,000 – 35,000 right whales were killed in one decade alone (the 1840s) in the Pacific Ocean! Boiled-down whale fat went on to fuel oil lanterns in nearly every American home and business during that time. Whale oil also played a critical role in the advancement of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Given their flexible yet durable structure, baleen sheets from the upper gum of the animal were used in everything from corsets and skirt hoops to umbrella ribs, fishing rods, shoehorns, and buggy whips.

Right whales continued to be hunted in the North Pacific until a global moratorium on right whaling was agreed upon in 1935. Unfortunately, illegal whaling by the former Soviet Union into the 1960s almost resulted in the complete extinction of the eastern population. Today, the eastern population is currently categorized as critically endangered under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List.

How does climate change factor in?

The globe is undoubtedly changing from climate change, and it is unclear how this will impact the recovery of this species. Other right whale species are moving further north to find food. North Pacific right whales have been seen and heard further north in the Bering Sea in recent years, and other species in the Bering Sea appear to be moving north too.

But the story may be different in the Gulf of Alaska. One of the animals sighted from the recent August Kodiak survey matched to an animal photographed in 2006 – meaning that one animal has come to Kodiak as an important feeding ground for over 20 years. In addition, the relatively numerous sightings of right whales off British Columbia in the past decade suggest that something good is happening in the waters off British Columbia for right whales. Consequently, this region may be important habitat for these rare whales for decades to come.

Duke University Marine Laboratory Twitter: @DukeMarineLab

University of Washington Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean, and Ecosystem Science Twitter: @CICOESresearch

Save the North Pacific Right whale website

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