As a 48-day whale survey in the North Pacific drew to a close, Jessica Crance heard a series of gunshot calls—vocalizations unique to the right whale. By the end of the stormy final day, the survey team had seen four different whales from one of the world’s most endangered populations.
The eastern population of North Pacific right whales is estimated to number fewer than 50 animals. It is both one of the rarest and most mysterious whale populations. Their migration routes, calving grounds, and population trends remain unknown. Filling these essential information gaps is vital to managing and protecting them.
The new sightings mark the first in the Gulf of Alaska since 2021, and have added at least one and perhaps two new animals to the North Pacific right whale catalog. They provide key information as NOAA Fisheries considers proposing changes to their designated critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. And they may support growing evidence of two separate eastern North Pacific populations in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.
“Anytime we see these whales it’s really exciting, and sightings in the Gulf of Alaska are even more rare than in the Bering Sea,” said Jessica Crance, NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “Every sighting helps us better understand this population and how to support its recovery.”
From Abundance to the Brink of Extinction
Once abundant, North Pacific right whales were hunted to near extinction mostly within a single decade (1840–1849). Then, hundreds of illegal killings by the U.S.S.R. during the 1960s brought them closer to the brink.
The species comprises two populations, a western and eastern population. The eastern population is distinct and unique—it is the only right whale population in the world that has been found to sing. Ranging a vast area from Hawaii and Mexico along the U.S. and Canadian West Coast to the Bering Sea, these whales are difficult to find, let alone study. International cooperation and acoustic technology have been key to learning more about this elusive population.
Watching and Listening for Whales
The new sightings were made during a collaborative international survey on the high seas south of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in August and September of 2023. The research was sponsored by the International Whaling Commission and government of Japan. The purpose of the survey was to collect data on sei, fin, blue and humpback whales, and the rare North Pacific right whales. This information will provide the science needed to support the conservation and management of these species.
During the survey researchers watched and listened for whales. The team made visual observations from sunrise to sunset as the ship traveled along predetermined tracklines. Sonobuoys deployed throughout the survey collected acoustic recordings and helped locate whales.
“Because these whales are so seldom seen, a lot of what we know about their movements is from acoustic recordings,” Crance said. “But some information can come only from sightings. Sightings help us learn about their size, health, maturity, and behavior. We can match photographs to known individuals to see if we have found a new animal. Every sighting provides a lot of valuable information.”
This summer, the planned survey was completed without sight or sound of a right whale. However, because the tracklines were finished early, the team decided to spend the remaining 4 four days searching for North Pacific right whales. While the weather was uncooperative, they were still able to find and photograph several whales. Crance describes what happened:
On the afternoon of the 19th, I started hearing multiple gunshot calls. I deployed a second sonobuoy, and we started heading in the direction of the calls. One hour after I heard the first gunshot, one of our researchers spotted a right whale! It popped up right in front of the boat, and they were able to get beautiful left and right side photos of the head. Good thing they did, because we only saw it a couple times after that before we lost it and the weather and rain picked up too much.
The morning of the 20th, we once again had bad weather. Finally I got a good position, and we started heading that way. About 2 hours later, we found a right whale! Over the next 2 or 3 hours, we found at least three right whales, potentially four.
Identifying New Whales
Even though the team was experiencing bad weather and the animals were being evasive, they were still able to obtain usable photographs from two animals. Using these photographs, they were able to confirm that at least one of the animals was newly documented.
“The whales weren’t particularly cooperative, and the sea state was so rough that most of our photos were either the back of the animal’s head, or were just the blows as the whale was hidden in the trough of the wave. But we were still able to say with certainty that we had four different animals in the area,” Crance said.
Each right whale has a unique pattern of callosities—white, raised rough patches of skin—that help researchers identify them. We compared photos of the whales to the North Pacific right whale catalog curated by NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Laboratory. Many of the images in the catalog were submitted by opportunistic mariners who became citizen scientists.
“We encourage every single person who goes to sea in the North Pacific to keep an eye out for right whales and snap as many photos as they can,” said Amy Kennedy, NOAA Fisheries affiliate/University of Washington. “Opportunistic images are immensely important to us, and have provided some of our most important matches in the past.”
The new findings will improve our understanding of the eastern North Pacific right whale population and inform management decisions. The sightings were in the middle of an area we are assessing for the revision of critical habitat for the species under the Endangered Species Act. The continuing lack of a single match between Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea individuals lends weight to the possibility that there may be two separate populations of eastern North Pacific right whales.
Most importantly, the new sightings offer renewed hope for the survival of these whales.
“We keep finding new animals, and the whales we do see are healthy, robust adults. That’s a good indication that this population is resilient and has a chance for recovery,” said Crance. “It means that this population does stand a chance.”
Hear More Right Whale Tales
Learn more about eastern North Pacific right whales at Whales on the Brink: Stories from the Rice’s Whale Discovery and Right Whale Tales. This symposium celebrates Rice’s whales, large whale conservation efforts, and the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Jessica Crance and other whale experts will highlight the newest research on the critically endangered North Pacific right whales and what we are doing to protect and recover them. Join us for the symposium at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, or virtually, on November 16, 2023. Also on November 16, join our North Pacific right whale scientists prior to their presentation for a special Facebook Live broadcast at 3:20 p.m. Eastern or 11:20 a.m. Alaska time.