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Rare North Atlantic right whale spotted off Gloucester

Lucky Gloucester residents got a rare glimpse of a North Atlantic right whale this week within 300 feet of the city's rocky shoreline.

The whale sighted Sunday morning is one of only about 500 North Atlantic right whales left in existence, and though the animals regularly swim along the coast, they are seldom seen.

Researchers have confirmed that the whale spotted off Gloucester was a right whale.

"It's one of the rarest individuals in the world, so to have this sighting is special," said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium. "They were hunted nearly to extinction … and they really have not recovered very quickly."

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The aquatic mammals feed on copecods, crustaceans that are abundant on Jeffreys Ledge, about 20 miles northeast of Gloucester, according to Tim Cole, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole.

There are three species of right whales: the North Atlantic right whale, the Southern right whale that swims near Australia and New Zealand, and the North Pacific right whale, which Cole said is the rarest of all.

This time of year, North Atlantic right whales are mostly moving south, with pregnant whales migrating down to Florida. Others are searching for good patches of copecods, Cole said.

Most people will never see a North Atlantic right whale as close as Gloucester residents did Sunday — as least not legally. State and federal regulations require a research license for anyone to get closer than 1,500 feet from a right whale in a boat, plane, or other vessel.

But if you missed Sunday's sighting, your luck isn't up. Many North Atlantic right whales are coastal dwellers, and the younger whales often break away from groups of whales to explore closer to the shore.

"They're typically very mobile," he said. "Certainly watching them in their natural environment with their natural behaviors is a wonderful thing to do and something everyone should take advantage of."

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.