updated 4/15/2004 6:08:41 PM ET 2004-04-15T22:08:41

A rare sighting of right whales in the Gulf of Mexico has been confirmed for the first time in more than 20 years, scientists say. Right whales are among the world's most endangered species.

A University of Florida student who was home for Easter weekend photographed two whales about a mile and a half off this Florida Panhandle resort city while fishing Friday.

"One was about twice as big as the other," Chris Cramer said Wednesday. "They were moving at a good clip, too."

Cramer provided the photographs to The News Herald of Panama City, which forwarded them to Pete Sheridan, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory here. They then were sent to whale experts inside and outside the agency, who recognized the animals as right whales, probably a female and her calf.

All about whalesWith only 300 or so animals remaining, right whales are considered the world's most endangered whales.

The sighting prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday to issue a notice to the boating public to be on the lookout for the whales and to report any sightings.

"We do have some concern for the animals," said Blair Mase, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist. "We would like to monitor them. We are interested in possibly tagging them. That will allow us to keep a close eye on them."

The whales did not appear to be in distress and seemed to be heading southeast, Cramer said. A day after his encounter, a friend spotted a pair of whales 35 miles offshore but did not have camera, so it was unclear they were the same two, he said.

Mase said a whale sighting also has been reported in Pensacola Bay, about 100 miles west of here, in recent days.

A very rare sighting
The last right whale sighting in the gulf was during the 1970s, and there have been only a half-dozen since the 1950s, said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist in Boston with the New England Aquarium's North Atlantic Right Whale Research Project.

"It's very rare," she said. "They don't really like real warm water , but they can handle it."

Female right whales travel to southern waters in winter and deliver calves there, but they typically remain in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida and Georgia coasts. They generally start to head back north in mid-to-late March.

Knowlton said a team of observers monitoring right whales off Florida and Georgia wrapped up its work in late March, believing the last of the animals had started the return trip north.

She was unsure what may have led the whales into the gulf because it is difficult to find the small crustaceans they feed on there. It might be a sign of trouble, she said.

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