One of the World’s Rarest Whales

Understanding the elusive North Pacific right whale

Each year we discover new species on land and at sea. In 2023, more than 5,000 new deep-sea species were discovered in a large area between Hawaii and Mexico in the Pacific. Defying all biological norms, recently discovered Antarctic strawberry-feather star species can have more than 20 arms. Jumping size brackets, in 2019 a new species called Sato’s beaked whales was identified in the North Pacific, and in 2021, the 40-foot-long Rice’s whale was formally recognized in the Gulf of Mexico. The list will keep growing. 

Although not nearly as new to science, did you know there are three different species of right whales— Southern right whales, North Atlantic right whales and North Pacific right whales? Of the three species, North Pacific right whales(NPRWs) are the most critically endangered, with fewer than 50 remaining in the Eastern stock. 

Despite low numbers and even less information on this fascinating species, 2022 and 2023 were really big years for NPRWs. In 2022, fishermen spotted two NPRWs skim-feeding in Unimak Pass near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. In March 2023, a NPRW was spotted in Monterey Bay, California, making it one of about 20 sightings of the species in California since 1955. And a research survey in Alaska in 2023 sighted four different right whales, marking the first sighting in the Gulf of Alaska since 2021 and adding at least one and potentially two new animals to the NPRW catalog! NOAA Fisheries will consider all of this new information when revising the critical habitat designation for NPRW in Alaska. 

North Pacific Right Whale in the ocean using blowhole

Known threats to NPRWs include vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and climate-change impacts. But there is so much we don’t know about these enigmatic species, including where they migrate or spend their winters. It is therefore essential that we continue to expand research efforts to learn more about NPRWs so we can identify ways to protect them. It is also vital that we continue to raise awareness that this unique and largely unknown species along Alaska and the U.S. West Coast is important to preserving biodiversity in the North Pacific. 

North Pacific Right Whale in the ocean rarest whales

Help Ocean Conservancy raise awareness about NPRWs by participating in and sharing out the Whale Naming Contest! This is your chance to suggest and vote for a name for the latest identified addition to the North Pacific right whale family.

For more information on NPRW, check out this First Recording of North Pacific right whale song and listen to Dr. Jessica Crance’s presentation on NPRW at the Smithsonian Symposium November 2023.

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