Image: Right whales off Maine
Misty Niemeyer  /  NOAA
These are among the North Atlantic right whales spotted earlier this month in the Gulf of Maine.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/31/2008 1:33:03 PM ET 2008-12-31T18:33:03

Federal government scientists reported Wednesday that they believe they have discovered a wintering ground — and possible breeding ground — for endangered North Atlantic right whales.

With the right whale population estimated at about 325, the findings could eventually help provide critical protection for the species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the findings by its staff, stating that an aerial survey team spotted 44 of the whales on Dec. 3 in the Jordan Basin area, about 70 miles south of Bar Harbor, Maine. Eleven days later, the team spotted 41 right whales just west of Jordan Basin.

"We’re excited because seeing 44 right whales together in the Gulf of Maine is a record for the winter months, when daily observations of  three to five animals are much more common," team leader Tim Cole said in a statement. "Right whales are baleen whales, and in the winter spend a lot of time diving for food deep in the water column. Seeing so many of them at the surface when we are flying over an area is a bit of luck."

Some 100 female North Atlantic right whales head south in winter to give birth in the waters off Florida and Georgia, but little had been known about where other individual right whales in the population go in winter, largely due to difficult surveying conditions.

"Knowing where the whales are at any time is critical to protect them," NOAA said in a statement. "Finding an aggregation of whales can trigger a management action affording protection, such as slowing ship speeds in the vicinity of the whales."

NOAA also noted that earlier this month federal speed rules for large ships went into effect to protect right whales from being struck and killed by vessels.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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