Right whale

In this Aug. 6, 2017, photo provided by NOAA Fisheries a North Pacific right whale swims in the Bering Sea west of Bristol Bay. Jessica Crance, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was able to use acoustic equipment to find and photograph two of the extremely endangered whales and obtain a biopsy sample from one. NOAA estimates only 30 to 50 eastern stock North Pacific right whales still remain. 

Scientists earlier this summer made a rare sighting of two pairs of North Pacific right whales, noteworthy because only about 30 of the massive, endangered animals are thought to remain in the waters off Alaska.

Federal scientists aboard the research vessel Oscar Dyson on a 25-day survey cruise in the Gulf of Alaska got close enough to each pair in separate encounters to take photos of the bumpy, calcified patches of skin on their heads. The unique markers, which are like fingerprints, then helped scientists to determine two of the whales had never been seen before.

“It certainly is very exciting and gives us hope that there are other animals out there that we don’t know about,” said Jessica Crance, a Seattle-based marine mammal scientist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. “We were around the animals for several hours in each encounter.”

The animals are some of the most endangered in the North Pacific and their scarcity has helped to cloak their migration movements — and even their calving grounds — in mystery. They can reach 64 feet in length and 100 tons. The North Pacific right whales have wide, flat backs, deeply notched flukes and are dark — almost black — in color. They were once thought to number more than 26,000 but their numbers tumbled in the 19th century as whalers found them easy to target, and rich in oily blubber and baleen.

Today, a population of several hundred remains in the western North Pacific off Asia, while the smaller population off Alaska is estimated to have fallen to about 30.

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