After spending his entire career hoping to spot a rare North Pacific right whale, researcher John Ford had given up ever being able to see one of the rarest animals on earth.
The last time one of the majestic mammals was seen off the coast of B.C. was in 1951 — before the 58-year-old scientist was even born.
That was until last week, when Ford and fellow department of fisheries and oceans whale researchers James Pilkington and Graeme Ellis spent a day near Haida Gwaii monitoring a whale that’s the size of a semi-trailer and weighs more than 20 SUVs combined.
“It was a thrilling experience,” said Ford. “We would never have imagined that we would be able to see one. They are critically endangered and extremely rare.”
Ford estimates there are between 38 and 50 of the animals left on the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean and no more than a few hundred in the world.
This sighting south of Langara Island was only the seventh in the past century, he said.
The right whale — so named because it was the “right” whale to hunt for its blubber and its valuable baleen plates that hang from the roof of its mouth to filter out everything but its preferred meal of the tiny zooplankton called copepods — was harpooned almost into extinction in the mid-1800s.
In one decade back then, 30,000 of them were killed in one decade, said Ford.
“They were big, slow and easy to float once they were killed,” he said.
The right whales were coveted for their 500 baleen plates, which are three metres long and 25 cm wide, because the substance was strong and flexible and used for various products, including “whalebone” corsets popular a century ago.
The North Pacific right whale is mostly black, large and stocky, and is easily recognizable for its highly arched jaw and growths of white thickened skin on its head called callosities, according to the DFO website.
“If you do spot one, you may have just won the marine mammal lottery,” according to the DFO.
Hunting of the animals have been banned since 1935 but the Soviets continued to hunt them illegally in the 1960s, which likely delayed their recovery, said Ford.
He said it’s “very, very doubtful” that any nation would continue to hunt it because of its endangered status but the whales are at risk from collisions with ships and getting entangled in fishing line.
“It was not only exciting personally to see one of the whales but it was wonderful for us to be able to confirm that this species still exists,” said Ford.
He and his colleagues for identification purposes videotaped and photographed the whale, coming to within 25 to 50 metres of it but not close enough to disturb it.
The researchers were able to collect some of its prey and its scat, which they can analyze to genotype the animal through its DNA and learn more about it, such as its gender.
The Canadians have already compared photos with the Americans’ catalogue of 19 whales and none of them match, which means they likely have discovered a new whale.
Ford said they spent as long as they could monitoring the whale, which seemed “pretty indifferent” to their presence.
“It’s an opportunity we may never have again,” he said.
This is the first sighting in over 50,000 km of whale surveys off the B.C. coast over the past 10 years, said Ford, who is head of the cetacean research program at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.
But he said he remains hopeful that the sighting is a sign that the population will survive. The DFO has been implementing a strategy to help it recover.
The whale was first spotted by Pilkington on June 9 and Ford and Ellis joined him on June 13 to observe the whale.
“When we realized what we were looking at, we were in a state of disbelief,” said Pilkington in a press release. “I never thought I’d see a North Pacific right whale in my lifetime, let alone have the opportunity to study it over several days. I was ecstatic!”