Scientists spot rare whale in Bering Sea In this Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017 photo provided by NOAA Fisheries a North Pacific right whale swims in the Bering Sea west of Bristol Bay. (NOAA Fisheries via AP)
Scientists spot rare whale in Bering Sea
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Federal researchers studying critically endangered North Pacific right whales sometimes go years without finding their subjects. Over the weekend they got lucky.

A research vessel in the Bering Sea photographed two of the animals last Sunday. It obtained a biopsy sample from one. That announcement came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last Thursday.

NOAA Fisheries research biologist Jessica Crance was on board the Yushin Maru 2. That is the ship where the whales were spotted. The ship is part of the Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research program. The program is a collaborative effort headed by the International Whaling Commission. 

Crance picked up faint calls of a right whale east of Bristol Bay, Alaska. She used an acoustic recorder. She listened between sounds of killer whales and walrus.

The sounds came from an estimated 10 to 32 miles (16 to 51 kilometers) away. The ship headed west, she said in a blog entry. After four and a half hours, the rare animals were spotted. This happened despite the presence of minke and humpback whales, and only a few calls from the right whales. 

The two right whales are part of the eastern stock. It numbers just 30 to 50 whales. That's according to Phillip Clapham. He is head of the cetacean program at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

A French whaling ship recorded the first kill in 1835. It reported seeing "millions" of others. That claim was exaggerated. But according to Clapham, it drew hundreds of other whalers to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

Within 14 years the overharvest of the slow, buoyant animals sent many whalers through the Bering Strait. They hunted bowhead whales instead.

There was a modest comeback of right whales in the 20th Century. But it was derailed when Soviet whalers in the 1960s ignored critically low numbers. They illegally killed eastern stock right whales in the Gulf of Alaska.

The right whale sampled Sunday had been seen eight times before, Clapham said. The last time was a decade ago.

A biopsy sample can identify the animal. It can also reveal its gender. And it can indicate whether it's pregnant and reveal information on diet and reproductive hormones.

Studying North Pacific right whales is complicated by the expense of reaching their habitat in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Critical data remains unknown, including their winter habits and many of their preferred summer feeding areas for copepods, a tiny crustacean plankton.

"We don't know what habitats continue to be important to the species," Clapham said.

The biggest threats to the animals are fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes, Clapham said.

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