By Pete Thomas/GrindTv
The probable sighting of North Pacific right whales off California's San Miguel Island during the past several days had researchers scrambling Wednesday to board a boat or plane and try to spot and photograph the endangered mammals.
The estimated population for the Northeast Pacific sub-population of these whales is only about 50 individuals, so sightings are exceedingly rare. (The western sub-population off Japan numbers in the low hundreds.)
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the North Pacific right whale is the most endangered whale species on earth.
Sightings at San Miguel Island, within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, occurred on multiple days between February 2 and 14, by a shore-based NOAA researcher studying pinnipeds.
He did not have access to a boat and the whales–initially one whale, then two later in the period–were spotted two miles offshore and appeared to leave little doubt as to their identity.
They were robust and broad, mostly black, with no dorsal fins, and with very large, black tail flukes. (North Pacific right whales typically measure 50 to 60 feet.)
The researcher, perhaps because he was so far away and did not have photographic equipment to document the sightings, did not share his observations until leaving the island on Monday.
The Northeast Pacific sub-population typically summers in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
Since 1925, there have been only 13 confirmed sightings off California.
In the pre-whaling era there were believed to be about 20,000 North Pacific right whales.
Boaters who spot what might be North Pacific right whales are asked to try to photograph them, particularly the heads and flukes, for ID purposes, and contact NOAA Fisheries.