One of the biggest challenges for researchers is that they sometimes have to go a long time before they find fitting subjects for their studies. Right whales have been a challenging find for researchers, but a recent sighting has opened up a lot of doors. While research biologist, Jessica Crance was on board the Yushin Maru 2, she spotted two right whales while using an acoustic recorder to pick up on the whale’s distinct sound in between the sounds of killer whales and walrus.
The calls were picked up while the ship was just east of Bristol Bay, Alaska. The vessel that Crance was on is part of the Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research program, a collaborative effort headed by the International Whaling Commission.
While the ship was headed west, the sounds were heard from about 32 miles away and it took four and a half hours to track the whales down. Along the way, Crance witnessed humpback and minke whales, but the rare right whales were more challenging to spot.
According to Phillip Clapham, head of the cetacean program at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, the two right whales that were found are part of 30-50 whales in the eastern stock. Due to the low number of right whales, the find was quite the historical moment.
“A French whaling ship recorded the first kill in 1835 and reported seeing “millions” of others,” said Clapham. “That claim was exaggerated but it drew hundreds of other whalers to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.Within 14 years, the overharvest of the slow, buoyant animals sent many whalers through the Bering Strait to hunt bowhead whales instead.”
Soviet whalers derailed the modest comeback of right whales in the 20th Century because they disregarded the extremely low numbers and killed eastern stock right whales illegally in the Gulf of Alaska.
Out of the two right whales that were discovered on Sunday, one of them was biopsied and it was determined that the whale had been seen eight times before, the last time being a decade ago. A biopsy sample has the capability of revealing a whale’s gender and identifying the animal, while also reveals what type of diet the whale has and information about its reproductive hormones.
One of the most challenging things about finding North Pacific right whales is the fact that it is so difficult to get to their habitat in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Researchers are still unsure of some substantial information regarding this type of whale, such as their preferred summer feeding areas and their winter habits.
“We don’t know what habitats continue to be important to the species,” Clapham said. “The biggest threats to the animals are fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes.”
Right whales can grow up to be more than 59 feet in length and weigh as much as 100 short tons. They have V-shaped blow holes and dark gray or black skin and their most distinct feature is the rough spots on their head which are caused by what is known as ‘whale lice.’