Once numerous in the North Pacific, the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) was heavily sought after by whalers because it was abundant, slow moving, floated when killed, and yielded large quantities of oil and baleen.
The species was severely depleted by whaling efforts in the mid-1800s, and was further depleted through illegal whaling by the former Soviet Union through the 1960s even after a 1935 prohibition was placed on the killing of right whales. In a single decade alone, between 1835-49, approximately 11,000 were killed. Today, the North Pacific right whale is considered one of the rarest and most endangered whale species in the world, with approximately 30 individuals thought to remain in the entirety of the eastern North Pacific, and several hundred in the western.
In British Columbia, only six confirmed sightings have been made in the past 100 years. All were sighted by B.C. whaling vessels, and all were killed – the last in 1951. This profound rarity has caused many researchers and policy makers to question whether it actually still exists in Canadian waters. That is, until last week, when a North Pacific right whale was found off the west coast of Haida Gwaii by Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DFO) researchers for the first time in 62 years, providing a glimmer of hope that this species is not ready to leave.
I was a researcher who only dreamed of seeing a North Pacific right whale, occasionally joking before an aerial or ship survey that I would find one, but never actually expecting to. I have worked with the DFO Cetacean Research Program (CRP) out of the Pacific Biological Station (Nanaimo, B.C.) for nearly two years, putting in close to 200 days on ship and aerial surveys for cetaceans all over the awe-inspiring coast of British Columbia.
Two weeks ago, I began a survey like any other, on the Canadian Coast Guard ship Arrow Post, tasked to spend ten days surveying for two of the SARA-listed species our program focuses on: fin whales and killer whales. According to old whaling records from the 1800s, many North Pacific right whale catches that occurred in British Columbian waters were off the west coast of Haida Gwaii and western Dixon Entrance. It just so happened that this is the area I was to cover during this survey. If there was a clear night during the first few days of the survey, I probably would have seen the stars beginning to align. But it was cloudy, so I had no idea what was to come.
On the third day of the survey, the sun came out and conditions improved enough to head offshore and try our luck in search of fin whales. Soaring black-footed albatross were abundant offshore, as were smaller sea birds, but strangely only a few humpback whales and Dall’s porpoises could be found in the beautiful morning conditions.
I struggled to keep my focus as the hours passed without a sighting. The conditions were worsening: a strong northwest wind was spreading white caps over the water’s surface and creating confused seas, making any blows difficult to see. But all of a sudden (as these things usually happen), I spotted a single blow near the horizon, maybe four nautical miles southeast of our position. Being the first blow in a while, I requested that we alter course to get close enough to identify the species, not realizing at the time that the animal we were travelling towards would make history.
As we approached, and the animal continued to surface, I identified its characteristics, keying the animal out in my head: large dark body with no dorsal fin = either grey whale or a right whale. I felt a rush of adrenaline. On the next surfacing I made out a prominent rostrum, and the body was large and rotund. Still no dorsal fin. The animal was certainly not graceful, creating large amounts of whitewater as it moved, uncharacteristic of a grey whale.
My whole body was starting to tighten up in anticipation and I told the crew on the bridge that this could be a really big sighting. I just needed to see its blow from a different angle and get closer to inspect its rostrum for the tell-tale callosities of a right whale. The animal turned towards us, we were now 500 m away, it blew a perfect V-shaped blow specific only to right whales. I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was actually happening! I took a quick photo of the head on the animal’s next surfacing and zoomed into the photo, heart racing: callosities! Then it fluked, and the unmistakably long pointed flukes of a North Pacific right whale slipped beneath the waves. Astonished, I let out an excited holler! By that time the whole crew was on the bridge and we all had a big team hi-five. We’d just found a North Pacific right whale, the holy grail of whale sightings, and were now faced with one of the most important opportunities to collect data on any endangered whale in B.C. to this day.
Guest blog post by James Pilkington, DFO Cetacean Research Program (CRP)
 Species At Risk Act (SARA); the DFO Cetacean Program monitors, studies, and provides scientific advice on cetacean species listed under SARA.