updated 10/5/2011 10:48:02 AM ET 2011-10-05T14:48:02

Officials in American Samoa said the first whales of the season have been spotted in the territory.

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A ranger in the National Park of American Samoa spotted a small group of humpbacks last Wednesday off the coast of Ofu island in the territory's Manu'a Island group. Ranger Carlo Caruso said they spent about half an hour swimming back and forth quickly, breaching, blowing and slapping their pectoral fins.

The sighting came two days after Hawaii's first whale sighting on Sept. 26, which was several weeks earlier than expected.

Story: Rare white Humpback whale spotted

"During the peak months of September and October, humpback whales visit our balmy waters from Antarctica," the park service said in a news release. "They occur in small groups of adults or in mother-calf pairs."

Humpbacks have been sighted around all seven of the islands in the territory, but their numbers are unknown. They migrate to the islands to mate and give birth to their young.

Whales grow up to 50 feet long and weigh about 45 tons.

While humpback whale populations appear to be increasing in some areas of the world, those in Oceania are still considered to be endangered since being decimated by whalers in the 1800's and 1900's, according to the park service.

By the time commercial whaling was stopped in 1966, 95 percent of the whales in Oceania had likely been killed. Their recovery has been unexpectedly slow, probably due to continued whaling by Soviet factory ships as late as 1972 and a subsistence harvest of these whales in Tonga up to 1978.

"Because humpbacks use our waters to give birth to their young, it is important to protect them when they are here," said Michael Larson, spokesman for the National Park of American Samoa. "Enjoy their presence, but don't pester them. Avoid the temptation to boat right up to them or follow them closely. Boaters, divers, and swimmers should stay at least 100 yards away, and watch from there."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Blue whales delight watchers in California

  1. Closed captioning of: Blue whales delight watchers in California

    >>> for the past few weeks off the coast of southern california , some unusually cold water that's been hanging around and the food that it brings with it has attracted some stunning visitors. blue whales , the biggest creatures on the planet. they were almost hunted to extinction. they're back, and people are watching. miguel almaguer drew the assignment of the day, hands down.

    >> look!

    >> reporter: in the chilly waters off southern california 's coast, the hunt is on.

    >> there's the tail.

    >> reporter: all hands on deck, all eyes on the sea. [ cheers ]

    >> reporter: to catch a glimpse of the world's largest creature -- the blue whale .

    >> watch for the tail.

    >> oh!

    >> reporter: these days, there's been plenty of surprises.

    >> we live on the california coast, but you don't actually see them like this.

    >> like nothing i have ever seen before. they're so huge.

    >> whoa, what's that?

    >> reporter: biologists say the 200-ton mammals are searching for tiny, shrimp-like krill. this is fertile feeding ground.

    >> the krill do well in cold water . last year was the coldest it's been in 30 years.

    >> reporter: the length of a basketball court they can live up to 90 years. blues are graceful, elegant and curious. ten years ago, spotting even one would have been rare. but this year, at least 500 sightings so far. researchers saw blue whales courting.

    >> what we got to see today was off the charts.

    >> reporter: for kayakers, it doesn't get closer than this.

    >> hunted primarily for blubber, blue whales for headed for extinction when they were placed on the endangered species list in 1966 . scientists won't say they are thriving but there are 10,000 worldwide. the big threat now is being hit by ships.

    >> what concerns us though is because they are so close to shore now they are venturing into the shipping channels.

    >> reporter: for stooiss and tourists alike, a reminder of what we almost lost. gentle giants like few have ever seen before. miguel almaguer, nbc news, long beach, california.


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