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Dispatches from the field

Rare Opportunity to Study the Critically Endangered North Pacific right whale in the Bering Sea


North Pacific right whale field study
Archive image.  Photo: A. Kennedy

North Pacific
right whale
North Pacific right whale survey image
What's Happening
July 27
August 10
Field Blogs Home

Exciting news from the Eastern Bering Sea: scientists capture images and other needed biological data on rare whales

Even after so many years of doing field work, sometimes you are still left amazed. Because every now and then the stars all align, and everything works out exactly as you hoped it would. Today was one of those times, because we found that needle in the haystack.

Around 3:45 this afternoon, while listening to a group of very chatty killer whales and some walrus, I heard a faint upsweep, and then one more. Not wanting to get my hopes up, since it could easily have been a humpback whale, I waited, until finally I heard it. The faintest gunshot call - so quiet I almost missed it. I certainly wasn't expecting any right whale calls; we were about 55 miles east of their critical habitat inside Bristol Bay, and hadn't even transited through the habitat yet.

Because the calls were faint, it was difficult to get accurate localizations, so the resulting distance estimations ranged from 10 miles to 32 miles, although the direction was relatively consistent. But, because the weather was cooperating and visibility was good, we decided to try our luck.

The next few hours were frustrating, as the whale stopped vocalizing, the few calls I got were giving me conflicting bearings, and we were surrounded by minke whales and humpbacks.

As we were nearing the end of the survey work hours, the crew were about ready to call it a day. I finally started getting loud, clean calls with only 15 minutes of survey time remaining, and luckily, the last blow of the evening that they decided to investigate turned out to be not one, but two North Pacific right whales. It may have been one of the faster times we've ever found a right whale; from the time the first call was heard to the time of sighting was around 4 1/2 hours. The fantastic scientists and crew worked tirelessly, even after an already long 12 hour day, and managed to obtain photo-ID quality photos of both whales, as well as a biopsy sample from one of the two animals.

   pre-recording of right whale

We are all elated; it was a perfect end to the day. Even as I write this I still have gunshot calls and upsweeps coming through on the last buoy. We hope that this is just the first of many encounters we have with these animals, as we still have yet to transit through their critical habitat. The information obtained from this survey will help us better understand the population dynamics of this critically endangered species, and help guide conservation and management efforts in the future.

North Pacific right whale sighted on August 6
North Pacific right whale sighted August 6th, 2017 


North Pacific right whale sighted on August 6
North Pacific right whale sighted August 6th, 2017 


North Pacific right whale sighted on August 6
North Pacific right whale sighted August 6th, 2017 


Meet the Blogger

Carey Kuhn
Jessica Crance

Jessica Crance is a research biologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Centerís Marine Mammal Laboratory.

She joined the Labís Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program in 2009 after completing her M.S. at the University of San Diego on killer whale vocal development.

Her research focuses on marine mammal passive acoustics, with an emphasis on population monitoring, spatio-temporal distribution, vocal behavior, and call characteristics of Arctic and sub-Arctic marine mammals.


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