Contact: John Robinson (831) 647-4237 or 4201
Rare Right Whale Sighted in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
An extremely rare northern right whale, a species nearly extinct, was spotted off the Big Sur Coast last week, fleeing a pair of apparently aggressive gray whales in an unusual interaction observed by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary officials.
Monterey Bay Sanctuary Superintendent Bill Douros and NOAA Corps. pilot Lt. Commander Matt Pickett, were aboard the Sanctuary airplane SEA WOLF, assessing storm damage along the Big Sur Coast near Cape San Martin, when large splashes appeared in the ocean below them, near a pod of gray whales.
"We looked down and saw a large black whale being chased by several gray whales," Douros said. "I couldn't believe it. For a biologist this is so exciting, both because of the rareness of the whale and also because of the interaction between the two species."
Pickett, who has flown right whale census projects off the East Coast, confirmed the sighting.
"There were probably 12 gray whales in an area about a quarter square mile near the right whale, although only two were obviously interacting with the right whale. We saw one group of six gray whales swimming together, northbound, several hundred yards south of the right whale," Douros added.
For about 15 minutes Douros and Pickett circled the whales, watching the right whale veer back and forth, splash and dive repeatedly as it tried to elude the pursuing gray whales. Eventually the right whale submerged for an extended period and Douros and Pickett continued their flight. While the right whale was swimming northbound, eluding the gray whales, neither Douros or Pickett were confident that they could predict the whale's overall direction of travel.
It is only the fourth sighting of a right whale off the California coast in the past 15 years. The sighting, and unusual behavior of the gray whales, is of great interest to marine biologists.
"It's an extraordinary, unprecedented sighting," said Alan Baldridge, a cetacean expert recently retired from Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Laboratory. "They are the rarest large whale in the North Pacific. We've never heard of aggressive behavior between baleen whales. We see aggressive interactions between baleen and toothed whales - such as orcas. But nothing like this."
Right whales were hunted to the brink of extinction near the turn of the century, before receiving federal protection in 1937. Some experts estimate that as few as 50 to 100 right whales are left in the Eastern Pacific, ranging off the coast from Mexico to Alaska. It is not a species expected to survive.
"Their numbers are so low in the Eastern Pacific, we've concluded that so few remain, that it is not a viable population," Baldridge said. "There are a few stragglers, but no sign of reproduction."
Over the past 15 years, only three verified sightings have been recorded in the Eastern Pacific. In April, 1995 National Marine Fisheries biologists observed a right whale off Point Piedras Blancas, near Cambria on the southern edge of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
Prior to that the most recent sightings had been in March, 1982 off Half Moon Bay, and in March, 1981 in the Santa Barbara Channel in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary is developing a search plan to possibly conduct a census later this week for right whale(s).
Commercial fishermen and whale watch operators are asked to keep a look out for the right whale. It can be distinguished from gray whales, common off California at this time, by its slightly larger size (15m vs. 12 m), its nearly uniformly black body, its lumpy white patches, called callosities on its head and lower jaw, its deeply v-shaped tail flukes, and its conspicuous v-shaped blow.
Please contact the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary office, (831) 647-4201, if any right whales are spotted.
Several poorly focused pictures are available for review by researchers.