Sightings of right whales are incredibly rare. According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, only six have been recorded in the past hundred years, with the last one being in 1951.
Right whales are an endangered and protected species in Canada and less than 50 are thought to exist in the eastern North Pacific ocean.
The whales were once abundant in B.C. waters but were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century. Most of the remaining population was killed off by illegal hunting in the 1960s.
"When we realized what we were looking at, we were in a state of disbelief," said biologist James Pilkington, who made the discovery, in a statement. "I never thought I’d see a North Pacific right whale in my lifetime ... I was ecstatic!"
Dr. John Ford, head of the Cetacean Research Program at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., called the recent observation "exciting".
"Our research group has conducted over 50,000 km of whale surveys off the B.C. coast over the past 10 years and have sighted thousands of whales, but this is the first North Pacific right whale," he said.
"It was wonderful to see it and to confirm that the species still exists in Canadian waters."
The Canadian government is currently working on an action plan designed to recover the right whale population.