One of the rarest creatures on the earth, the endangered right whale, was seen near the Vineyard Tuesday. The sighting off the Gay Head Cliffs is for the record books, a first for the Vineyard in a long time.

The Northeast Right Whale is one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals, with only slightly more than 300 known to be in existence. One was observed from an airplane while it was feeding.

A right whale in Vineyard waters is evidence of recovery. Right whales were once prolific around the Cape and Vineyard more than 200 years ago. The earned their distinct name for being the right whale to harpoon and kill for whale oil.

The remarkable observation Tuesday came as scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service were doing an aerial search for a pod of 23 right whales known to be near Block Island on Sunday. Twenty-three right whales in that area of Narragansett Bay was itself a startling discovery.

“It was pretty exciting to see it there,” said Pat Gerrior about the whale sighting off Gay Head. She is a network coordinator for the right whale early warning system at the National Marine Fisheries Service center in Woods Hole. The federal government is using satellites, vessels and airplanes to monitor the movement of these migrating creatures that move along the Atlantic coast and spend the spring in Cape Cod Bay.

Significant resources are being devoted to insure that these last remaining creatures are not harmed in any way either by fishing gear or ship strikes. She said the twin Otter plane flew from Otis air base. The plane was headed towards Block Island. The scientists were particularly concerned about the whales being in the shipping channel at the Buzzards Bay entrance.

“We flew from Otis, came over Woods Hole and were going down Vineyard Sound. We saw the whale between Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. Just as we got off Gay Head we saw the right whale. There was one. It was underwater and feeding.” The sighting occurred at 12:22 p.m. While she didn’t get precise reading on length, she said adults can measure from 50 to 55 feet in length.

Robert Kenney, an associate marine research scientist with the University of Rhode Island, has been studying right whales for 20 years. He said a right whale sighting in Vineyard waters is rare. Most right whales are sighted off Nantucket and the eastern end of Cape Cod. “As far as I recall, the last time there was something in Vineyard Sound was in the 1960s or 1970s” he said. “Anytime you see a right whale it is a significant event.

“They are pretty easy to identify. It is the only big whale in our waters that doesn’t have a dorsal fin, when they swim. They look like a black hippo in the water, without the ears.”

Any connection between the whales being in Vineyard waters and El Nino is pure speculation at this point, according to Phil Clapham, a whale biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole. “I suspect the fact that the water temperature has an influence. But more than that, whenever you get a sharp boundary between warm and cold water and an up-welling that brings water to the surface, that biologically is more significant,” he said. In the waters between Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island, the scientists found the reason for the visit of right whales - there was food, plenty of zooplankton.

There is another reason why right whales are being found so close to the Vineyard. Mr. Clapham said right whales are being sighted in Vineyard waters now because the scientists are looking. “It is certainly worthwhile investigating whether this is significant. There will be continued efforts to survey down toward Block Island,” he said.

Miss Gerrior said that while they flew over the waters west of the Vineyard, the scientists spotted several finback whales. The waters around Martha’s Vineyard are known to be a visiting place for finback, humpback and pilot whales. On April 13 at 9 a.m., a large whale was observed off Wasque by two Chappaquiddick residents.

“I wonder whether it is because there are people looking that have not been looking before,” said Mr. Clapham.

No matter, the idea that whales could be returning to Vineyard waters is good news for a community that more than 100 years ago depended on the killing of whales for its industry.

Mr. Kenney said: “I do think they are increasing in numbers. Even if we have only 320 right whales, that is a big improvement over what it was at the turn of the century. The right whale, the humpback whale and harbor seals are definitely coming back.”

“The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for all management of marine mammals. Congress has a line item just for the right whale which has been increased to $1 million. That is a big change from 15 years ago, when the entire budget for all whales along the east coast was $500,000,” said Mr. Kenney.

President Clinton this week endorsed new safeguards to protect the right whale. Rep. William Delahunt has been a leading force behind a campaign to require improved reporting of right whale sightings by ship captains.

This week at the Edgartown Post Office, free brochures on how to avoid impacting a whale were available. There are strict federal and state laws which protect the whales from humans, one for boaters that require they stay at least 500 yards away from a right whale. Dan McKiernan, a top state fisheries biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries, has been focusing his attention on monitoring the movement of right whales.

He said a Coast Guard vessel out of Woods Hole reported the sighting of a right whale in Muskeget Channel on April 1. “I think these sightings of whales in Rhode Island and near the Vineyard are new. It does sound like they are coming back,” he said.

If anyone sees a right whale, they should notify the National Marine Fisheries Service. If they see a whale entangled in fishing gear they should immediately notify the Coast Guard. “If the whale is entangled, they should make that call in a heartbeat,” Mr. McKiernan said.