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Extinct Atlantic Gray Whale Spotted for First Time in Over 200 Years

Source: Via New England Aquarium

On March 1, an aerial survey team – commissioned by the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life – observed a gray whale diving, resurfacing, and feeding in the Atlantic Ocean. The surprising discovery has experts perplexed because gray whales have been extinct in the Atlantic for more than 200 years. Here’s what we know!

How Do They Know It Was A Gray Whale?

The survey team was flying roughly 30 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts when they encountered the gray whale-but they didn’t know it was a gray whale at first. It wasn’t until they snapped a few pictures that they made the connection.

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Gray whales are easy to distinguish from other whales because they don’t have a dorsal fin and, instead, have a dorsal hump – as well as 6-12 bumpy nodules along their back. These features allowed the survey team to confirm their suspicion.

Gray Whales Can Be Up To 49 Feet Long

The gray whale is one of the 10 largest whales in the ocean. They grow up to 50 feet long and weigh as much as 90,000 pounds – for reference, the Blue Whale is twice as long and weighs up to 300,000 pounds.

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They’re sometimes referred to as ‘devil fish’ due to their aggressive response when harpooned, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They’re also known for having one of the longest annual migrations of any mammal – they travel between 10,000 and 14,000 miles every year.

Where Do Gray Whales Usually Live?

Gray whales were once observed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, but they’re now primarily found in shallow coastal waters in the North Pacific Ocean. In fact, they’ve been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean since the 1700s.

Source: Deyan Georgiev via Canva

The biggest populations of gray whales are found along the west coast of North America and the coast of eastern Asia. These two populations are usually isolated from one another, but they cross paths from time to time.

Why Don’t Gray Whales Travel To The Atlantic Ocean?

Gray whales used to love the Atlantic Ocean, but an increase in commercial whaling (hunting) wiped the population out by the 18th century. Moratorium and conservation efforts helped save the rest of the population – and the gray whale is now a protected species.

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With the Atlantic population wiped out, we were still left with Pacific gray whales – so why didn’t they migrate over to the Atlantic? Well, let’s just say sea ice has been blocking the whales’ route through the Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Why Did The Gray Whale Return?

That raises one major question – how did this new gray whale find its way to Nantucket, MA? Believe it or not, scientists and researchers are blaming climate change.

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Due to a rise in global temperatures, the Northwest Passage is primarily ice-free during the summer months. That means whales (and other sea creatures) can pass through it, if they want to – which was likely the case for this new whale.

Only Five Observations Over Past 15 Years

So, what makes this latest discovery so eye-opening? Well, for starters, only four gray whales have been spotted in the Atlantic Ocean over the past 15 years – the latest observation being the fifth.

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That’s why the New England Aquarium described the sighting as an ‘incredibly rare event’ in their press release, which was published on March 5 (four days after spotting the whale).

Gray Whale Spotted In December 2023

The most recent whale sighting (prior to the one on March 1) was in December 2023, when a gray whale was spotted off the coast of Miami. It appeared to be in good condition, which wasn’t the case with the three sightings that came before it.

Source: slowmotiongli from Getty Images via Canva

The other instances occurred in May 2010 (off the coast of Israel and then Spain), May 2013 (in the Southern Atlantic, in Namibia’s Walvis Bay), and May 2021 (in the Mediterranean).

March 1 Observation Looked Familiar

New England Aquarium’s survey team spent 45 minutes flying over the latest gray whale to enter the Atlantic. They snapped plenty of aerial photos and, after analyzing them, concluded that they’d seen this whale before.

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“Aquarium scientists believe the gray whale seen off New England this month is the same whale sighted in Florida late last year,” the New England Aquarium wrote in their press release on March 5.

Aerial Survey Team Couldn’t Believe The Rare Sight

Research Technician Kate Laemmle, who was on the airplane, said her brain was ‘trying to process what [she] was seeing’ – adding that ‘this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters.’

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“We were laughing because of how wild and exciting this was – to see an animal that disappeared from the Atlantic hundreds of years ago!” she added. Her colleague, Orla O’Brien, said she ‘didn’t want to say out loud what it was, because it seemed crazy.”

Orla O’Brien Never Knows What They’ll Find

O’Brien went on to discuss how ‘important each survey is’ and how these recent gray whale sightings ‘serve as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance.’

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“While we expect to see humpback, right, and fin whales, the ocean is a dynamic ecosystem, and you never know what you’ll find,” O’Brien said. The real question is when we’ll see another gray whale enter the Atlantic – and whether or not it’ll become a normal occurrence again.

Gray Whales Aren’t The Only Ones Affected By Climate Change

Speaking of whales in the Atlantic, let’s discuss the North Atlantic right whale – a critically endangered species and one of the most endangered large whale species in the world. There are only about 350 left in the ocean.

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A new report in the Royal Society Open Science claims that North Atlantic right whales are getting smaller and smaller because of the increased scarcity of food due to climate change. The smaller body means fewer babies are being born – which isn’t a good sign for an endangered species.

What Can We Do To Help The Whales?

If you want to help the whales, the first thing you can do is support climate change initiatives in your local area. The sooner we can reduce climate change, the sooner we can ensure whales have a suitable environment to live in.

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Other than that, the NOAA recommends staying at least 100 yards away from whales and limiting whale-watching activities to 30 minutes. If you see a distressed whale in the ocean, report it immediately, and limit your speed to 10 knots while on the water.

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Ryan Handson

Written by Ryan Handson

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