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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.

Records 1855-1954

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 1980s).

Records 1925-2011

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 53(4):341-345.
  • 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, ?)
  • 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. 1986.)
  • 17 April 1981 one 14m animal near Santa Barbara, CA (Woodhouse & Strickley, 1982).
  • 13 September 1974 . 60 km W of Fort Bragg, CA (NMFS POP)
  • 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 (Gilmore 1956)