Federal fisheries scientists have begun a month-long research survey aboard the NOAA ship Reuben Lasker to try and locate rare North Pacific right whales, possibly the most endangered marine mammal in US waters. NOAA officials say that only an estimated 30 North Pacific right whales remain, the legacy of extensive historical whaling in the 19th century and large illegal catches by the former Soviet Union, which further devastated the population in the 1960s.
The focus of the survey will be on a site in the Gulf of Alaska where large numbers of whales were harvested in historic commercial whaling.
Brenda Rone, chief scientist for the cruise from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said that actually very little is known about this species. What they are able to learn about where whales go to feed, eat, and raise their young will help resource managers to protect important whale habitat and the whales themselves.
Plans are to deploy acoustic equipment to try and hear the whales, and because sound travels farther through water, the scientists will be able to detect whales well beyond the distance at which they can be seen. The North Pacific right whale makes a variety of sounds underwater, most notably a sound that scientists refer to as a “gunshot” call.
Right whales have growths called callosities on their heads, and the pattern of callosities on each animal is as unique as a fingerprint, so scientists will photograph both sides of the head of any right whales they find. The photos can be compared to those in a catalogue of existing photos collected by researchers over the years, to determine if the animal is already known to scientists. If the whale is known, new sightings will help establish its movements and range, NOAA officials said.
If they get close enough, scientists also hope to attach satellite tags to the whales to monitor their movements over time, and also collect tissue samples.
Researchers also hope to see a few fin and blue whales and collect information on them as well, Rone said.