Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

‘Miracle’ whale leaves scientists elated – and relieved

A North Pacific right whale off Haida Gwaii.

John Ford

After studying cetaceans for decades and spending thousands of hours scanning the horizon, John Ford had pretty much given up hope of seeing a rare North Pacific right whale.

The species, thought to be down to only about 100 animals, has been teetering on the brink of extinction since commercial whalers devastated the population in the 1800s. The last recorded sighting of a right whale in British Columbia waters was 62 years ago, in 1951, four years before Dr. Ford was born.

But Dr. Ford got his chance recently, when Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist James Pilkington called to say he had spotted a right whale feeding leisurely eight nautical miles (15 kilometres) off the northwest coast of Haida Gwaii – in the middle of a whale hot spot the small team was then surveying.

Story continues below advertisement

"I was elated. It's something we'd always hoped to see out there, but really didn't think realistically it would ever happen," Dr. Ford said in an interview Thursday. "I was just thrilled that James had found it … Then we went looking for it [too] – and it was better than anything I'd have ever believed possible."

Mr. Pilkington had the encounter while cruising on the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Arrow Post. At the time, he wasn't far from where Dr. Ford was also searching the waters with another renowned DFO whale expert, Graeme Ellis.

At first, Dr. Ford thought Mr. Pilkington's sighting was just a fleeting glimpse of what may be the rarest whale in the world – the equivalent of looking at the sky just as a meteor falls.

But the next day, Mr. Pilkington, who in a statement said he was "in a state of disbelief," found the whale again – and Dr. Ford and Mr. Ellis scrambled to join him.

"We managed to get on the ship … and we went down and found it for the third day. We spent seven hours observing it feeding," said Dr. Ford, who began studying whales on Canada's West Coast in the 1970s.

In the past decade, his research team has done more than 50,000 kilometres of whale surveys without – until now – ever spying a North Pacific right whale.

"In the back of our mind we were always hoping for a miracle," Dr. Ford said.

Story continues below advertisement

He said the area off Haida Gwaii is rich in nutrients that bring all manner of cetaceans in to feed. Commercial whalers worked through the area in the 1800s, reducing the right whale population in the North Pacific from an estimated 11,000 to several hundred over about a decade.

"If we were ever going to see one, this was the area … but the probability in our minds was infinitesimally small and that's why it was such a shock to actually find one," said Dr. Ford, who is head of the cetacean research program at DFO's Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.

"What's great about this sighting is that it confirms the species still exists in Canadian waters, because that's been an open question. And it gives us some glimmer of hope that maybe there's more out there," he said.

"We are all excited about this. It's a big deal," said Dr. Phillip Clapham, who directs whale research for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

He said the North Pacific right whale was showing signs of recovery in the 1960s when illegal whaling by Russian ships killed 600 animals, driving the population down to about where it is today.

"It is probably the most endangered population of whales in the world," said Dr. Clapham.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at