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Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script


Right Whales Return

UPDATE: Later review of the photographs taken on this research cruise confirmed that the calf researchers first claimed to have spotted was in fact a juvenile right whale. It remains that no calves have been seen in 150 years.

INTRO: Scientists in Alaska were in the right place at the right time recently to see the world's rarest whale. Arctic Science Journeys reporter Debra Damron has their story, and what the sighting could mean for the future of the northern right whale.

STORY: Commercial whalers of a century ago called it the "right whale" because its blubber was rich with oil, it was easy to hunt and when killed, it floated on the surface. Tens of thousands of right whales once lived in the North Pacific Ocean, from Japan to Alaska's Bering Sea. But by 1900, the northern right whale was all but gone. In the years since, there have been few sightings, the last one in Alaska in 1993. Recently, however, Pam Goddard was among a group of federal fisheries scientists who saw four right whales near Alaska's Bristol Bay.

Goddard: "When we first saw them, they appeared to be swimming along the surface, possibly feeding. A larger whale and a smaller whale, which we at this time think could have been a calf, were very close together rubbing against each other, oftentimes they had their fins in the air. Sometimes they would dive and sort of all dive together. We thought, no way, there are only a couple hundred left, the chances that we were seeing several of them here were pretty unlikely. We realized that if they were right whales it would be exciting."

Goddard took photographs of the whales and showed them to Dave Rugh, a marine mammal specialist at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, Washington.

Rugh: "I knew right away they were right whales because they were very good photos, they were close to the photographer, large image size, they showed the lack of dorsal fins, the fluke shape, the flippers, everything indicated they were right whales."

Goddard's July observation was the first time since 1967 that anyone had seen more than two right whales at one time in the North Pacific. But more exciting is that a calf was with one of the adult whales, and no one has seen that in more than a century.

Rugh: "The fear was that they weren't getting together, that the animals were on the way to extinction, there just weren't enough around to produce the next generation. At least we've got one new one coming on that could be around for another 50 to 60 years perhaps."

For Goddard, being at the leading edge of a discovery is an experience she won't forget.

Goddard: "I would say this would rate pretty high, about a ten. Arctic surveys tend to be fairly standard, we see the same things over and over again, so this definitely would, in the six years I've spent out there, pretty exciting, one of the most exciting things definitely that I've seen so far."

Scientists say now that right whales have been sighted near Alaska again, they hope fishermen and others will stay on the lookout and report any sightings. The right whale can grow to nearly 60 feet and weigh 60 tons. They are sometimes confused with bowhead whales but right whales often have obvious wart-like growths on their heads, while the skin of bowhead whales is usually smooth.

For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Debra Damron reporting from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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