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One of the rarest whales on the planet spotted south of Galveston, fisherman says

Rice's whales are one of the world's most endangered marine mammals and there are believed to be only about 50 to 100 in existence, according to experts.

GALVESTON, Texas — A couple of fishermen have a whale of a tale after a once-in-a-lifetime experience off the coast of Galveston. They say they spotted an extremely rare Rice's whale about 100 miles south of Galveston earlier this week. 

Capt. Brandon Overton and Nate Ressling were fishing for billfish about 100 miles south of Galveston Monday. Overton said they'd been fishing in about 500 feet of water and had decided to move to another spot.

"You don’t think you’re going to see a whale when you’re going fishing," Ressling said. "I’m running the boat and I dropped the throttle, and was like, ‘God, there’s a freaking whale right there.'"

Ressling, owner of Southbound Fishing Team, was the first to see the whale. 

"At first, I thought it was a huge turtle due to the fact that we sometimes see some really big ones out there," Ressling said. "I turned the boat around to investigate. As soon as we got close, I saw water spout from its blowhole and knew we had found a whale."

He hollered at Overton. 

"I was taking a nap in the back of the boat when I heard Nate yell something about a whale," Overton, owner of Cbandit Charters, told us. "I definitely thought I misheard him. However, sure enough there one was about 100 yards off our starboard bow."

The fishing buddies were apparently a lot more excited about the encounter than the whale. 

"He was definitely skittish of the boat," Overton said. "We tried to get some better photos of him. Every time we would move within about 100 yards he would dive again."

The fishermen scrambled to get their phones to get a video.

"Came up, blew his blowhole, then went immediately back down," Ressling said. "He was 200 yards on one side of the boat, then 200 yards on the other side of the boat within a minute."

Overton said he'd never seen a whale in the Gulf of Mexico before. 

"It was an awesome and rare sight that I will never forget," he said. 

They didn't realize just how rare it was until later.

Although most would consider the sighting of a rare whale exciting, the Rice's whales are a source of debate.

"Every charter captain out here is scared to death because of Rice's whales. We were pressured not to even talk about this," Ressling said.

Due to their severely low numbers, environmentalists are pushing for measures like speed limits to protect them in the Gulf.

But, those who make their money from the water say that requiring boats to travel at only 10 knots per hour would be devastating to their businesses. The fishermen said the measures aren't necessary and think that from their first-hand account, the whales beneath the surface and the humans above can co-exist.

Rice's whales are one of the world's most endangered marine mammals and there are believed to be only a few dozen in existence, according to experts. 


More on Rice's whales

Until very recently, the whales were believed to be members of the Bryde's whale population. In 2021, scientists were surprised when genetic analyses determined the whales in the Gulf of Mexico were a distinct species. 

They called them Rice's whale in honor of renowned marinebiologist Dale W. Rice who first discovered the whales in the Gulf in 1965, according to the Marine Mammal Commission. 

They're more common in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico off the Florida Panhandle. However, sound recordings have indicated their presence near the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, 100 miles offshore from Galveston, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said.

The Rice’s whale was added to the Endangered Species Act in 2019 and is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There are believed to be only about 50 - 100 in existence, making them one of the rarest species on the planet.

Rice's whale fast facts

  • They're smaller than other whales but grow up to 42 feet long and weigh as much as 30 tons or 60,000 pounds, which is five times heavier than an elephant, according to TPWD.
  • Their body is sleek and their pectoral fins are slender and pointed. Rice's whales are dark gray on top with a pale or pink belly. 
  • Like Bryde’s whales, Rice’s whales have three prominent ridges in front of their blowhole. 
  • Based on limited data, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believe Rice’s whales spend most of their time within about 50 feet of the water’s surface.
  • They dive deeper during the day to feed on small planktonic animals. 
  • They are baleen or toothless whales because their unique mouths are used to filter food from water. The whales gulp huge amounts of water, then close their mouth to squeeze water through the sides and catch the tiny prey on their baleen's bristles. 
  • Rice's whales are typically seen alone or in pairs.
  • TPWD said the Rice's whale is one of the few types of baleen whales to prefer warmer, tropical waters. They don't make long-distance migrations and remain in the Gulf of Mexico year-round.
Credit: TPWD
Rice's whales are one of the world's most endangered marine mammals and there are believed to be only a few dozen in existence, according to experts.

Orca whales in the Gulf

While whale sightings are rare off Galveston they're not unheard of. 

In 2021, we told you about a lucky charter fishing group who got up close and personal with a huge pod of orcas.

After catching 54 tuna and 280 snapper, the New Buccaneer was heading back to Galveston.

"I was driving along, and I saw something off the port bow," Captain Sam Hardeman told KHOU 11 News.

They were about 100 miles off the coast of Galveston when Hardeman said it took a second to recognize what was right in front of him.

"We got closer, I thought it might be some pilot whales so I started to slow down," Hardeman said. "Before I knew it, the killer whales, they were just on us. It happened immediately."

He said the orcas seemed to be having a good time just feet away from the boat.

"Initially saw about 100 whales, a group of maybe 30 to 50 broke off and started following the boat," Hardeman said. "I had no idea they were in the Gulf of Mexico."

Greg Whittaker, Animal Husbandry Manager with Moody Gardens, said there's a small population of orcas in the Gulf but seeing them is rare. 

"It's truly a blessing to be out there at the right time and the right place," Whittaker said.

RELATED: Fishing group spots large orca pod off Galveston coast

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