Rare whales found in Bering Sea thanks to acoustic technology

A rare North Pacific right whale captured on camera for the first time in ten years. Photo credit: NOAA/IWC.
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Scientists aboard a research vessel in the Bering Sea have successfully tracked and photographed a species of whale that has not been seen for almost 10 years.

Maggie Mooney-Seus, who serves as the communications program manager at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, called it an exciting discovery and part of important research into the rare whale.

The actual whale in question is a North Pacific right whale, and finding them can be pretty tough, Mooney-Seus said.

"What was exciting was, you know, we don’t have a lot of opportunity to find these. Because it's like finding a needle in a haystack, when you have a population this small and you’re looking for them in the eastern Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska - it’s a pretty big area to cover," Mooney-Seus said.

The population of the whale has been measured at about 30 to 50 whales, according to scientists. "This makes the North Pacific right whale the rarest whale known to inhabit U.S. waters," Mooney-Seus said.

As for how this incredibly rare whale species was tracked down, the scientists aboard the research vessel utilized devices that are known as "sonobuoys," that are dropped into the water and record sound.

Jessica Crance, a scientist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center who was working aboard the NOAA vessel used the acoustic sound device to constantly monitor the ocean waters for what researchers call "whale sign" - or evidence of a whale's presence.

That audio recording can be listened to below:

After hearing the sound, the scientists were able to track the location of the whale sign and set a course that would later intercept with the fleet. While the technology isn't exactly new and has been used by the International Whaling Commission for 40 years to monitor whale populations, this is the first time it was utilized by a AFSC scientist to specifically track down a whale.

Upon finding the animals, Crance was then able to take photos and a skin sample of two whales.

"The small skin sample will allow us to learn more about the genetics about this particular animal. It helps us identify what sex it is, what population it belongs to, where it's from, that kind of basic information," Mooney-Seus said.

The organization was particularly happy about this find, as a similar research mission in 2015 had failed. Mooney-Seus said that AFSC did a survey at that time and their scientist was unable to find any whales in the Gulf of Alaska.

The whale's population has become very low due to over hunting, but Mooney-Seus said studies like these help preserve, monitor, and study the animals before it's too late. "When it's genetically distinct, it means that, once you lose it, it's gone forever."

The researchers plan to continue to monitor and search for more North American right whales into the fall. Crance will continue to listen for whale calls until September when she plans to return with high definition photos and video, as internet out on the Bering Sea can be a bit dicey.


Jessica Crance, NOAA Fisheries researcher deploying sonobuoy All photos credit: NOAA/IWC