WASHINGTON — The first northern right whale calf to be seen in the eastern North Pacific Ocean in perhaps a century was reported by the National Marine Fisheries Service on Friday.
Marine mammal specialists at the service called the sighting a cause for celebration.
“The North Pacific right whale population is in danger of extinction. A mother and calf embody hope for the whales,” said Jim Balsiger, regional administrator for the fisheries service in Alaska.
The northern right whale is the most endangered whale in the world, the agency said.
There is no reliable population estimate for that whale in the eastern North Pacific and scientists have seen only a dozen or so in the area in recent years.
The calf was spotted on Aug. 24 by fisheries researchers who were studying whales in the southeastern Bering Sea.
“The weather was heavily overcast when we first made the sighting,” said scientist Lisa Ballance, who led the research cruise. “We immediately launched a small boat with three scientists aboard to get a closer look, and to take photographs and biopsy samples.”
After studying for about an hour, they concluded it was a female and her calf. The calf was smaller than the other whale and it swam in alongside the flank of the larger whale in a drafting position typical of whale calves. The larger animal seemed intent on keeping itself between the small boat and the calf, Ballance said.
Photos do not show much, since the sighting was at night, but study of a skin sample from the larger whale confirmed it was female.
Since 1997 scientists have identified six individual eastern North Pacific right whales, all male.
In July 1996, another NOAA research expedition came across right whales in the same area, possibly including a calf, but the photo evidence was not clear enough to confirm the calf sighting.
Between 1900 and 1994 there were only 29 reliable sightings of right whales in the eastern North Pacific. Since then scientific expeditions have found a few whales — between about four and 13 individuals — in the eastern North Pacific each year.
Right whales were hunted extensively in the early 1900s because they were easy to catch, and floated after they were killed. Right whale flesh is very rich in oil. They’ve been listed as endangered since 1973.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is part of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.