A gray whale, declared extinct in the Atlantic, spotted in the waters off southern New England.

Gray whale
Credit: New England Aquarium

BOSTON, MASS. (March 5, 2024) – In an exceedingly uncommon occurrence, the New England Aquarium airborne observation squad spotted a gray whale off the New England shoreline last week, a species that has been absent from the Atlantic for over two centuries.

Aquarium researchers were traversing 30 miles south of Nantucket on March 1 when they glimpsed an extraordinary whale. The creature repetitively plunged and re-emerged, ostensibly engaged in sustenance. The aerial surveillance aircraft encircled the vicinity for 45 minutes, affording observers the opportunity to capture supplementary images. Subsequent to the encounter, the observers scrutinized the visuals and validated their conjectures: It was indeed a gray whale.

“I refrained from verbalizing my suspicions, for they appeared implausible,” remarked Orla O’Brien, adjunct research scholar in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, who has been conducting aerial surveys since 2011.

During the whale’s submergence, O’Brien exhibited the visuals to Research Technician Kate Laemmle, who was likewise aboard the aircraft.

“My cognitive faculties were endeavoring to process the spectacle before me, as this creature was one that ought not to truly inhabit these waters,” expressed Laemmle. “We were convulsed with laughter due to the extraordinary and thrilling nature of the event—encountering a creature that vanished from the Atlantic centuries ago!”

New England Aquarium

Gray whales habitually populate the North Pacific Ocean and are easily discernible from other cetacean species by their absence of a dorsal fin, variegated grey and white integument, and dorsal protuberance succeeded by distinct ridges. The species vanished from the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century; however, within the last decade and a half, there have been five sightings of gray whales in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, including off the coast of Florida in December 2023. Aquarium researchers posit that the gray whale observed off New England this month is the same cetacean sighted in Florida late last year.

In elucidation of the peculiar observations, scientists attribute it to climate change. The Northwest Passage, a channel linking the Atlantic and Pacific via the Arctic Ocean in Canada, has consistently been devoid of ice during the summer months in recent times, partly attributable to escalating global temperatures. The expanse of sea ice typically constrains the habitat range of gray whales, experts assert, as the whales are incapable of traversing the dense winter ice that traditionally obstructs the Passage. Presently, gray whales may potentially navigate the Passage during summer, a feat unattainable in previous centuries.

“This observation underscores the significance of each survey. Though we anticipate the presence of humpback, right, and fin whales, the ocean is a fluid ecosystem, and one can never predict what one may discover,” articulated O’Brien. “These occurrences of gray whales in the Atlantic serve as a poignant reminder of how rapidly marine species adapt to climate change, given the opportunity.”

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