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The North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica)

- the most endangered whale -

Adult right whale off Half Moon Bay, California, March 1982. Note the arch of the head, the curved lower lip and the callosity in front of the blowhole. (The hundreds of white Cornula barnacles around the mouth are anomalous.)

(updated March 5, 2023)

Recent News

19 April 2022.  One North Pacific Right Whale was seen at around 9:00 am at 37° 06.029  N, 122° 26.003 W) 5.3 miles southwest of Point Ano Nuevo, California. The whale was spotted by a recreational fisherman named Jack Gross.  The whale was photographed and a short video taken, now in possession of NOAA which confirm its identity as a right whale. It appeared to be feeding by skimming the surface while swimming.  (pers. comm from William Douros, NOAA)

March 10, 2022. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) urging the government to expand the critical habitat designation in Alaska for North Pacific right whales.  Per the Center: "New surveys and research confirmed two key habitats essential for this right whale population’s survival — a migratory corridor through the Fox Islands in the Aleutian chain, including Unimak Pass, and feeding grounds near Kodiak Island. Today’s petition asks the Fisheries Service to designate these areas as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act, connecting two small existing units".

Under the ESA, NMFS must respond to the petition within 90 days (= June 8, 2022) If  NMFS determines the proposed revision may be warranted, it must make a final decision on the petition within one year.  Here is a link to the Center for Biological Diversity's Petition to Revise the Critical Habitat Designation for the North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica) Under the Endangered Species Act .

On February 11, 2022, two North Pacific Right Whales were seen and photographed in the Bering Sea, the first right whales seen in the Bering Sea in winter.

May 26, 2020, 1 North Pacific Right whale seen approximately 20 nm west of ____/Brooks Peninsula, Vancouver Island during a transit to Anchorage. Richarg Goings made the sighting and has a 29 second video which has been posted to Facebook. (awaiting more detailed info) 

15 North Pacific Right Whales were seen in he eastern Bering Sea during summer 2017 on the International Whaling Commission/Japan POWER cruise in the eastern Bering Sea. Photographs were obtained of 12 of these whales and biopsy dart samples from 3.

In August 2015, NOAA Fisheries conducted a three week dedicated ship survey for North Pacific right whales in the Gulf of Alaska southeast of Kodiak Island covering 2,500 nautical miles with both visual observers and acoustic detection devices (sonobuoys). On March 10 and March 16 they heard calls from a single right whale in the area of Barnabas Trough southeast of Kodiak Island in the general area of the designated Critical Habitat. Despite intensive searching, they were unable to spot the animals visually.

On June 3, 2013, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service issued its Final Recovery Plan for the North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica)  pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. he Recovery Plan contains a good description of the current scientific knowlege regarding right whales and the threats they face. It also describes what NOAA plans to do to prevent the species from going extinct.

There have been some recent scientific publications, but there seems to be little field research since the completion of the surveys of the eastern Bering Sea by NMFS for the Minerals Management Service in 2009.

Recent sightings in the Gulf of Alaska:

  • July 2012  a Japanese sighting survey found a right whale at 56 17.46 N 149 10.69 W (deep water about 130 miles east of Kodiak).
  • May 2010 a right whale was seen by sea kayakers in Pasagshak Bay, Kodiak Island (photo online)

Wikipedia & this webpage - how are they different?

In 2010, I decided to change the focus of the present webpage from being a primary source of all infomation about this species to being a complement to Wikipedia's North Pacific Right Whale page. So, I with the help of many others, I added large amounts of information to the Wikipedia artice, and am the principal author of that page.

The advantages of this approach is that Wikipedia has many more visitors and collaborative help from others.  Wikipedia is a know, and generally well trusted website, and it attracts many viewers who would not wander to a specialized site like mine.

How do the websites differ?

  • Wikipedia
    •  Best initial source of general information about the biology, legal status, conservation, and whaling history regarding this species.
    • All information is "factual" and "verifiable" through the inclusion of references
    • The material is condesnsed as appropriate for an encyclopedia article - albeit a 24 page encyclopedia article!
    • (note that Wikipedia has separate articles for the genus Eubalanea (Right Whale), the North Atlantic Right Whale, and the  Southern Right Whale. Much of the information on these other pages also applies to the North Pacific species.
  • This Webpage:
    • In general, this website can host much more detailed information about select subjects, including:
    • News about North Pacific Right Whale biology and conservation that has not made it into Wikipedia
    •  tools to help scientists and other researchers, specifically: 
      • annotated bibliography of papers and books on right whales (I believe this is the most complete bibliography of recent papers available)
      • abstracts of scientific articles that are not available on-line
      • hosting of several papers otherwise not available on-line
      • detailed listing of all sightings of right whales along the coasts of
      • California, Oregon, Washington and Baja
    • This webpage can contain discussion about various conservation threats and proposals and opportunities to address them.
    • Recommended list of popular books and articles about the North Pacific Right Whale
    • Gallery of Photos and art associated with North Pacific Right Whales
    • list of conservation organizations involved in right whale conservation

    The North Pacific Right Whale - What is it?

    Many people know of right whales as a consequence of Roger Payne's National Geographic Society TV specials on the whales of Peninsula Valdez, Argentina. Right whales have also recently gotten attention from whale-watchers off Cape Cod and other areas in the northeast and eastern Canada. Right whales are even becoming the object of significant whale watching industries (and nice WWW sites!) along the coasts of Australia (Whales on the Net and (South Australia Whale Centre), South Africa, and New Brunswick, Canada. However, right whales also occur in the North Pacific. In fact, they were the basis for a major whaling industry in the North Pacific, particularly between 1840-48. They still occur in the North Pacific, yet they are the forgotten whale species. Here is some information about them.

    The World's Most Endangered Whale Species: The North Pacific Right Whale

         Among the large whales, right whales have shown the least signs of recovery after their decimation by whalers. The population in the eastern North Atlantic that supported a major fishery appears to be zero. The population in the western North Atlantic is less than 400 animals. In the North Pacific, the species is so exceedingly rare that almost every sighting of a single animal is a publishable event. There may only be a few hundred animals or less in the entire North Pacific with most of these animals occurring in the western North Atlantic and the Sea of Okhotsk.

         In the U.S., conservation of all whales is the responsibility of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the Department of Commerce. Their WWW site has information about Northern Right Whales generally. Pursuant to its responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, in 1990 NMFS prepared a Recovery Plan for the the Northern Right Whale which it is now updating. Because the western North Atlantic population is much better known than the No Pacific population, the former has been the focus of the conservation efforts of NMFS and other groups such as the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA. The No. Pacific right whale population remains elusively difficult to study, let alone protect. The International Whaling Commission convened a Special Meeting of the Scientific Committee to Review the Status of Right Whales in March 1998 in South Africa.

    My studies of Maury's whaling records from the 1840s revealed very dense populations of right whales both in the Gulf of Alaska, and more particularly along the coast of Kamchatka (RWs seen on 90+% of search days) and along the Kurile Islands. Review of the historic whaling records shows an extraordinary abundance of right whales in the North Pacific in the 1840s. Right whales appear to have been more abundant than gray whales in the North Pacific. I hope that the No Pac. right whale is not forgotten in all the justified concern for RWs in other oceans.

    All indications are that the E North Pacific population is exceedingly small and may be on its way out. Given the level of whalewatching/fishing/pelagic birding effort along the California coast, particularly during the January-March period, the low level of sightings appears to mirror a very small, perhaps intermittent population here.

    Recommended Popular Books & Articles about Right Whales:

    • The Urban Whale by Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland (eds.)  (2010) Harvard University Press. This book focuses on the North Atlantic Right Whale along the East Coast of the U.S. but has great relevance to the North Pacific as well, and has great information about the basic biology and ecology of right whales. Very highly recommended. 
    • Right Whales by Phil Clapham (Voyageur Press) 2004. An excellent book on the biology and conservation status of right whales. Most of the conservation emphasis is on the western North Atlantic population, but is relevant to No. Pacific right whales as well. Well-written, it is an easy read for anyone interested in this species and scientifically very accurate and current.
    • Going Down? by Joseph Roman in Wildlife Conservation magazine, June 2000 pp.36-35. A good survey of the problems facing the northern right whale with a focus on the western North Atlantic population.
    • The Search for the Right Whale by Scott Kraus & Kenneth Mallory, (Crown Publishers/New England Aquarium, 1993). Although this book looks like it is aimed towards a younger audience, it is an excellent introduction to right whales with great photos.
    • Seasons of the Whale by Erich Hoyt (Chelsea Green Publishing Co, 1990). This book tells the story of a couple of dozen real whales and dolphins during their annual migrations along the east coast of North America, including the story of 5 right whales.
    • With the Whales by Flip Nicklin and James Darling (NorthWood Press, 1990). An extraordinary collection of spectacular photographs of whales, including many shots of right whales.
    • Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises by the National Geographic Society (1995). One of the best books the NGS has ever done with more of Flip Nicklin's spectacular photos.
    • Among Whales by Roger Payne in Natural History (January 1994) pp. 40-47. (about Argentina)

     Please send any comments or corrections to: Jim Scarff with "right whale" in subject line.


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