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Scientists astonished after sighting one of world's rarest whale species: 'We both knew immediately what it was'

"Finding even a single animal becomes a search for the proverbial 'needle in a haystack.'"

"Finding even a single animal becomes a search for the proverbial 'needle in a haystack.'"

Photo Credit: Brenda K. Rone/NOAA

A whale of a tale, indeed. On May 24, scientists were shocked and excited to spot a North Pacific right whale — one of the rarest whale species in the world — off the coast of Marin County, California.

Research ecologist Jan Roletto and marine ecologist Kirsten Lindquist were aboard a research vessel for the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies when, surrounded by intense winds and strong swells, they sighted the remarkable creature from the ship's platform.

"We both knew immediately what it was," Roletto recalled, as reported by Phys.org. The North Pacific right whale is known for its V-shaped exhale, a generally pitch-black color, no dorsal fin, and distinct "callosities" (patches of rough, white skin) on its head. 

The whale "came up right in front of" the scientists, then stuck around for about 20 minutes, Roletto said. "It seemed to be resting." 

North Pacific right whales are endangered. (They got their name from whalers who identified them as the "right," or preferred, whale to hunt.) 

Extensive commercial whaling in the 1800s, illegal Soviet hunting in the 1960s, and difficulties studying the rare and remote species means that "finding even a single animal becomes a search for the proverbial 'needle in a haystack,'" Phys.org noted, quoting research biologist Jessica Crance's writing in the Journal of the American Cetacean Society

The whales' survival prospects remain threatened by human activities. Noise pollution can disrupt their navigation, contaminants such as plastic may cause harm, and entanglements in fishing gear lead to potential injuries or even death

The most recent data, detailed by NOAA Fisheries, suggest that only about 30 of these whales remain in the "eastern stock" in U.S. waters. So, an unexpected sighting is extraordinary. 

"It was astonishing," Roletto said

Even more astonishing? This wasn't the only North Pacific right whale spotted in the past year. In November, four appeared to researchers — Crance among them — in the Gulf of Alaska, NOAA Fisheries reported

Repeated sightings of an endangered species are "a good indication that this population is resilient and has a chance," Crance said at the time

On May 25, ACCESS shared images of the rare behemoth on its Facebook page, prompting optimistic reactions. 

"What a find!! Keep exploring," one commenter said. 

"Remarkable and hope-inspiring sighting," another wrote. 

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