by Kip Evans
One of the world's most endangered baleen whales, the right whale, was sighted off the Big Sur coast recently by Sanctuary Superintendent Bill Douros and NOAA pilot Matt Pickett, during a NOAA flight to assess winter storm damage. For marine scientists and whale biologists, this particular event is extraordinary not only because of the rarity of such sightings, but because it is a unique observation of two different types of baleen whales interacting.
"We looked down and saw a large black whale being chased by several gray whales," says Douros. For about fifteen minutes Douros and Pickett circled the whales, watching the right whale veer back and forth, splashing and diving repeatedly as it tried to elude the pursuing gray whales.
The fifty-foot right whales are very rare along the California coast. "It's an extraordinary, unprecedented sighting," says Alan Baldridge, a retired cetacean expert from Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station.
These endangered marine mammals can be distinguished from gray whales by their greater (about ten feet) length, nearly uniform black body, lumpy white patches (called callosities) on their heads and lower jaws, deeply V-shaped tail flukes and similarly-shaped blows.
Nineteenth century whaling records show that right whales were once abundant along all major continents in the temperate waters of the northern and southern hemispheres, although their population numbers may have been much lower along the Central Coast. In the eastern North Pacific, they could once be seen from central Baja California to the Bering Sea in Alaska. Today, such sightings are few and very scattered. During the past fifteen years, for example, only three verified sightings have been recorded in the eastern North Pacific, including two within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
Right whales traveled slowly, kept close to the coast, and floated when dead, earning them a reputation as the "right" whales to hunt. During the years they were hunted, thousands of these cetaceans were taken from the the North Pacific and over 80,000 from the southern hemisphere. Their large quantity of oil, valuable meat, and whale bone drove whalers to hunt them to near extinction. When protection finally came in 1937, most of the eastern North Pacific population was gone.
It is estimated that the right whale population in the southern hemisphere may have exceeded well over 100,000 individuals before the commercial whaling period. Today, a few thousand right whales can still be found in that hemisphere, but that population is also in trouble. During the last twenty years it has become evident that some reproductive success may be occurring, however, due to sightings of southern right whales in areas such as western Australia.
Some experts estimate that as few as fifty to 100 right whales are left in the eastern North Pacific. Because of these low numbers and the right whale's slow breeding rate (females give birth every three to four years, as opposed to other baleen whales, which give birth every other year), it may be too late to save the Eastern Pacific population. "Their numbers are so low in the eastern North Pacific," says Baldridge, "that we've concluded it is not a viable population."
Kip Evans is Water Quality Education Coordinator and Marine Education Specialist for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Illustrations ©1998 Lynn McMasters
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