Records of North Pacific Right Whales along the coasts of California,
Baja, Oregon and Washington
Records prior to 1855
There was a small amount of whaling by native peoples prior to the beginning of
Yankee pelagic and coastal operations in the mid-19th century. However, most native
tribes did not actively hunt whales, though they probably made use of whales that
stranded. The Makaws of the Olympic Peninsula did actively whale from shore, but
archeological digs of their sites reveal that the catch consisted overwhelmingly
of grey and humpback whales. Right whales comprised only a tiny percent of the bones found.
I have found no other records of right whales stranded or living along these coasts
prior to 1855. The Spaniards began inhabiting the California coast in ______, and
Russian sea otter hunters ventured as far south as the Channel Islands in the 18__s.
It seems likely that had there been coastal concentrations of right whales, as occurs
elsewhere in the world, these would have been commented on or exploited.
Pelagic whaliing for right whales in the North Pacific did not begin until 1835,
only after the whalers had decimated the populations of right whales in the
North and South Atlantic and South Pacific (e.g. Australia and New Zealand). It
picked up in intensity very rapidly then died off even more rapidly after 1848
and the discovery of the more valuable bowhead whale further north through the
Bering Straits. I have estimated that the total number of North Pacific right
whales removed by this fishery between 1840-49 was between 21,000-30,000 whales (see
Scarff, 2001 for details).
The first record of a right whale along these coasts is from 1855. During the 100 years between 1855
and 1954, there are only 16 records of 21 total whales. Of these 16 records,
there is only one stranding (Channel Islands c.1916), two sightings (Monterey
March 1855 and Carmel 1880), and the remaining 13 records are of whales caught
by the active coastal whaling operations that targeting grey and humpback
whales. Two sightings (four whales total) occurred in the winter of 1879-1880,
and three sightings (five whales total) occurred in the winter of 184-1885.
There are only two records of right whales between 1887-1954. The
sightings all occurred along the California coast; I am unaware of any records
for this period from Washington, Oregon, or Baja.
The coastal whaling operations in California came into operation after the peak
of pelagic whaling for right whales was over. Their main prey were grey and
humpback whales. Many of the records of right whales during this period
correspond with the locations of coastal whaling stations (e.g. Monterey/Carmel
- 6 records; San Diego - 3 records). Coastal whaling A complete description of
all these records is available on-line (Table 4). I argued in the cited paper that the remarkably few
records of right whales during this period, and the almost complete lack of
strandings leads to the conclusion that the coasts of Washington, Oregon,
California, and Baja did not constitute a wintering or calving ground for the
eastern population of right whales (contrary to the accepted wisdom in the
There have been only 13 records of right whales off California (including two sightings
off Baja) this century, all but one since 1955. Most of the sightings have been
of single animals and most occurred in late winter or spring (March-May) very close
to shore, several by observers on shore.
- 16 September 1998 - 1 right whale in Monterey Seen by Debbie Shearwater,
owner of Shearwater Journeys, a small whale.No photos taken
- 27 February 1998 near Cape San Martin, California. A single right whale was spotted off the Big Sur Coast, fleeing a pair of apparently
aggressive gray whales in an unusual interaction observed by Monterey Bay National
Marine Sanctuary officials. Monterey Bay Sanctuary Superintendent Bill Douros and
NOAA Corps. pilot Lt. Commander Matt Pickett, were aboard the Sanctuary airplane
along the Big Sur Coast near Cape San Martin, when large splashes appeared in the
ocean below them, near a pod of gray whales. "We looked down and saw a large
black whale being chased by several gray whales," Douros said. Pickett, who
has flown right whale census projects off the East Coast, confirmed the sighting.
"There were probably 12 gray whales in an area about a quarter square mile
near the right whale, although only two were obviously interacting with the right
whale. We saw one group of six gray whales swimming together, northbound, several
hundred yards south of the right whale," Douros added. For about 15 minutes
Douros and Pickett circled the whales, watching the right whale veer back and forth,
splash and dive repeatedly as it tried to elude the pursuing gray whales. Eventually
the right whale submerged for an extended period and Douros and Pickett continued
their flight. While the right whale was swimming northbound, eluding the gray whales,
neither Douros or Pickett were confident that they could predict the whale's overall
direction of travel. "It's an extraordinary, unprecedented sighting,"
said Alan Baldridge, a cetacean expert recently retired from Stanford University's
Hopkins Marine Laboratory, "We've never heard of aggressive behavior between
baleen whales. We see aggressive interactions between baleen and toothed whales
- such as orcas. But nothing like this."
- 2 April 1996 1 right whale, estimated to be 13m in length of undetermined
sex, was sighted in the company of 3 humpback whales off the western coast of
Maui, Hawaii (20°56' N, 156° 46' W). The right whale appeared to initiate
social interactions with the humpbacks. This is the first sighting of right whales
near Hawaii since 1979. Salden, D.R. and Mickelsen, J. 1999. Rare sighting of a
North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Hawai'i. Pacific Science
- 19 February 1996 15 km off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
(23° 02' N, 109° 30' W). A single right whale was seen by D. Gendron. This is only the third confirmed sighting of a right whale off Baja, although
Scammon suggested they may have been common there. Gendron, D. Lanham, S., and Carwardine,
M. 1999. North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) sighting South of
Baja California. Aquatic Mammals 25(1):31-34.
- 3 May 1995 off Piedras Blancas, CA (Rowlett
et al in prep, I believe).
- 24 May 1992 off Cape Elizabeth, Washington (Rowlett
et al. 1994, Northwest Naturalist 75: 102-104).
- 24 March 1992 70km SW of the SE tip of San Clemente Island,
CA (Caretta et al. 1994. Marine Mammal Sci. 10(1):101-105.
- 9 May 1990 one animal 17m, 8 miles N of Santa Catalina
Island,CA (Scarff, 1991).
- 5 February 1988 . one animal. La Jolla, CA (W.
Perrin, pers. comm)
- 20 March 1982. one adult 1.5 km off Pillar Point (Half Moon Bay), CA (Scarff, J.
- 17 April 1981 one 14m animal near Santa Barbara, CA
(Woodhouse & Strickley, 1982).
- 13 September 1974 . 60 km W of Fort Bragg, CA
- 11 March 1965 . one 15m animal 12km SW Punta Abreojos,
Baja (Rice & Fiscus 1968)
- 10 May 1963 . 44 km SSW Farallon Island (Rice
& Fiscus 1968)
- 11 April 1963 . one <9m animal 61 mile SW Pigeon Point,
CA (Rice & Fiscus 1968)
- 13 May 1959 . one 13m animal 16 miles SW Pt Montara, CA
(Rice & Fiscus, 1968)
- 31 March 1955 . one 13m animal off La Jolla, CA