They’re down but not out: the fight for survival for the world’s most endangered large whale

There’s been some really exciting news in the whale world today….a critically endangered North Pacific right whale has been spotted in BC waters! The last time there was a confirmed sighting of an individual of this species was in 1951 – 62 years ago!
Whale researchers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada were conducting research off Langara Island in Northern BC when they had a chance encounter with this very rare animal. They carefully approached the animal to collect video and photos as well as prey and scat samples. Check out some of their footage here.
What an amazing experience! I didn’t see the animal personally and I’m ecstatic…I can only imagine what they’re feeling right now! This is a sighting of a lifetime!

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Like their cousin, the North Atlantic right whale, this species was hunted to almost extinction by whalers. And even though this species has been protected from commercial whaling since 1931, their recovery was likely severely impacted by illegal whaling conducted by Soviet whalers from 1961-1979.
Scientists believe there once were between 11,000 – 37,000 individuals in the North Pacific. Today, there are likely no more than a few hundred individuals of this species left. They’re only found in the North Pacific and there’s thought to be somewhere between 38-50 individuals using the waters off the west coast of Canada, the US and possibly, northern Mexico. This makes them the most endangered large whale on the planet!
North Pacific right whales are protected as an endangered species under federal legislation – the Species At Risk Act. A draft action plan has been developed to identify activities that need to be undertaken to protect them. The number one activity – confirm they exist in Canadian waters. What a sad state to be in for a species that was once well known in BC waters. With less than 50 individuals, it’s a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack, despite them being over 50’ in length! But if this week’s surprise visit means anything, it means you can’t count them out.
Despite the remarkably bad odds, they’re still out there, fighting to survive. And, unfortunately, the battle isn’t over for any of the Northern Hemisphere right whale populations. Along with very small population numbers, they also face a multitude of other issues like ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear as well as chemical and noise pollution. It’s an uphill battle, especially in a world where finding mates will likely prove to be very challenging. This makes WWF-Canada’s work to protect at risk whales in all three of our oceans from these and other impacts, critically important.
The jury is still out whether North Pacific right whales will survive the battle for existence. For me, I’m just glad to know the world hasn’t seen the last of them yet; though it would be preferable if we didn’t have to wait 62 years to see one! It definitely makes me want to fight harder to help.