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One of world's rarest whales sighted off California coast

Lisa M. Krieger, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

SAN JOSE, Calif. — In an extraordinary sighting, a critically endangered North Pacific right whale was spotted off the Marin County coast on Friday, thrilling scientists.

One of the rarest whales in the world, only an estimated 30 animals are thought to survive.

“It was astonishing,” said research ecologist Jan Roletto, who sighted the whale about three miles west of Point Reyes National Seashore while aboard a research vessel for the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies.

Visibility was tough on Friday, with waves and fierce winds that pushed 12 to 14-foot swells. The mission of the research team’s weeklong trip, a partnership between Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries and Point Blue Conservation Science, was to survey marine wildlife.

But the whale was unmistakable.

“It came up right in front of us,” then lingered for nearly 20 minutes, said Roletto, research coordinator for the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries.


Standing together on the ship’s viewing platform, Roletto and marine ecologist Kirsten Lindquist instantly turned to look at each other.

“We both knew immediately what it was,” Roletto said. The identification has since been officially confirmed by the NOAA Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle, based on photos and video.

The whale had a distinctive V-shaped blow. Wide and pitch black, it had no dorsal fin. And there was at least one cluster of telltale “callosities” on the head, rough and white skin patches.

“It seemed to be resting,” Roletto said. “It wasn’t feeding. It wasn’t traveling. It would move a little bit, then sink down.”


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