Archived – Rare Whale Sighted Off British Columbia Coast

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NANAIMO, British Columbia – For the first time in over 60 years, a North Pacific right whale has been spotted in British Columbia waters. Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist James Pilkington made the discovery while surveying for whales off the west coast of Haida Gwaii aboard the CCGS Arrow Post, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel, on June 9, 2013. Pilkington and fellow Fisheries and Oceans Canada whale biologists John Ford and Graeme Ellis observed the whale for a total of 17 hours over the next few days as it foraged on zooplankton at the surface. Sightings of these whales are extremely rare – there are only six records of the species in Canadian waters over the past century, and all were killed by whalers; the last in 1951. Fewer than 50 individuals are thought to currently exist in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. North Pacific right whales are listed as Endangered in Canada.

“When we realized what we were looking at, we were in a state of disbelief” said Pilkington. “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!”

North Pacific right whales are large baleen whales that were once commonly found in British Columbia waters, most likely for feeding on their preferred prey, tiny copepods (zooplankton). They were abundant from the British Columbia coast north to the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea before being decimated by whaling. Nineteenth-century whalers preferred this species because they were large, slow swimming, and floated when killed. They were hunted to near extinction before 1900. Most remaining individuals were killed by illegal whaling in the 1960s. Today, the North Pacific right whale is one of the most critically endangered whale species in the world. It is estimated that there may only be a few hundred alive today, mostly in the western North Pacific.

“This is a very exciting discovery. Our research group has conducted over 50,000 km of whale surveys off the BC coast over the past 10 years and have sighted thousands of whales, but this is the first North Pacific right whale. It was wonderful to see it and to confirm that the species still exists in Canadian waters” said Dr. John Ford, head of the Cetacean Research Program at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, BC.

The North Pacific right whale is protected by the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). It is also protected under the Marine Mammals Regulations, which fall under the Fisheries Act.

A Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific right whale was prepared by DFO in 2011, and an Action Plan to implement the recommendations in the Recovery Strategy is currently in preparation.

North Pacific right whale


For more information:

Tom Robbins, Senior Communications Advisor
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
(604) 666-7120