First Right whale in 60 years spotted off the coast of Canada

For over two centuries, Northern Pacific Right whales were hunted by the tens of thousands in the waters near Canada, driving them to near extinction until the practice was outlawed in the 1930s. Sadly, the species is currently thought to number just a few dozen members, and though they've understandably kept themselves out of sight of humans since then, they may be making a comeback.

Researchers say that after six long decades, an extremely rare Right whale has been spotted once again off the Canadian coast -- a species many suspected would never return.

The Right whale made its appearance near the island of Haida Gwaii, British Colombia, fortunately close enough to be photographed by James Pilkington, who works for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. His colleague, John Ford, describes the team's reaction in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company:

"A week ago Sunday, James found this whale and thought initially that it was a humpback because humpbacks are fairly common in the area. But upon looking through his binoculars, he realized it wasn't -- it was a species none of us ever thought we'd get to see: a North Pacific Right whale," says Ford.

"It's so rare that there's believed to be fewer than 50 of them alive in the eastern half of the North Pacific Ocean. It was a thrill of a lifetime."

Up until this sighting, experts in Canada had been divided on whether or not the species still existed or would ever return to these waters, where it fed and thrived prior to the industrialization of the whaling industry. Thankfully, just in case such clear evidence as this were to arise proving that the whales were indeed still around, Ford and his department already had a conservation plan in place to help them recover.

"The population is so small it's hanging in the balance" says Ford. "But this is a positive sign."

Right whales were once a common species across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, but quickly became a favorite target among hunters who traded in whale oil and meat because they were slow moving and often ventured close to the shore -- vulnerabilities which earned them the distinction of being 'right' among whalers.

Fortunately, while whaling is in decline throughout the world, the return of the species could be a boon to the Canada's coastal economy from whale-watching tourism. After all, despite these whale's troubled history with humans, our deeper instinct still prefers to see them alive and free.

Tags: Canada | Endangered Species | Oceans | Whales

Best of TreeHugger