From July 31 to Aug. 28, an international team of scientists surveyed an area almost the size of New York in search of Pacific right whales, which have been teetering on extinction for decades.
"We did not see a single whale the entire time," said Phil Clapham, team leader and chief scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "The bottom line, they were not in the places they had traditionally been in the last six or seven years."
This summer's survey where scientists used high-powered binoculars and underwater listening devices is part of a larger four-year project to assess the seasonal distribution of the whales, their numbers and where they travel in the Bering Sea.
The Minerals Management Service is paying for the surveys at an annual cost of about $1 million. The research is required under the federal Endangered Species Act because the area where the whales like to spend summers overlaps an area the federal government this year approved for oil and gas development. Lease sales could begin by 2011.
The whales weren't found this summer because it is a "cold pool year" in the Bering Sea, Clapham said. That means the water is colder than normal. The colder water likely affected the distribution of plankton, which is what the large whales feed on, he said.
Many scientists considered right whales a lost cause until a few years ago when 23 were spotted, including two with calves, in an area of the Bering Sea where they like to feed.
However, numbers remain exceedingly small, making it difficult to find them, Clapham said.
"It is very much like a needle in a haystack given there are so few animals," he said.
Right whales have been listed as endangered since the early 1970s.
Scientists spent two weeks aboard a NOAA research vessel that departed from Dutch Harbor in late July. Scientists from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and South America joined the NOAA scientists.
For the last two weeks of the survey, the team took up the search in a 155-foot crab boat.
"We had a lot of humpbacks," said Clapham, who for 20 years has hoped to see a right whale. "We saw a lot of fur seals. You kind of get sick of fur seals."
The Bering Sea is changing as rapidly as any ocean on the planet because of global warming, said Brendan Cummings, ocean programs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which successfully sued the federal government to get critical habitat designated for the whales. Those changes have affected where animals go, he said.
While it will take a longer, wider look to find out what is happening with right whales, some things are apparent now, he said.
"We know ... for the past decade that the southeastern Bering Sea is the most important spot on the planet for North Pacific right whales. We need to not open it up for oil drilling," he said.
The whales, which can grow to more than 60 feet long and weigh 100 tons, have been protected since 1935.
Clapham said this is the first time that there has been dedicated funding to survey the whales, which he described as "arguably the most endangered population in the world."
He said scientists will go out again next year.
"It is very important for a lot of reasons to keep up with them," he said.
By Associated Press Writer Mary Pemberton