Federal researchers studying critically endangered North Pacific right whales sometimes go years without finding their subjects. Last weekend, they got lucky, per the AP. A research vessel in the Bering Sea photographed two of the animals Sunday and obtained a biopsy sample from one, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA Fisheries research biologist Jessica Crance was on board the Yushin Maru 2 when the whales were spotted. The ship is part of the Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research program, a collaborative effort headed by the International Whaling Commission. Using an acoustic recorder, and between sounds of killer whales and walrus, Crance picked up faint calls of a right whale east of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
The sounds came from an estimated 10 to 32 miles away and the ship headed west, she said in a blog entry. After four and a half hours, despite the presence of minke and humpback whales, the rare animals were spotted. The two right whales are part of the eastern stock of North Pacific right whales, which numbers just 30 to 50 whales, said Phillip Clapham, head of the cetacean program at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. The right whale sampled Sunday had been seen eight times before, the last time was a decade ago. Studying North Pacific right whales is complicated by the expense of reaching their habitat in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Critical data remains unknown, including their winter habits and many of their preferred summer feeding areas. (A North Atlantic right whale recently killed the man who rescued it.)