A Rare Gray Whale, Believed Extinct in the Atlantic for 200 Years, Has Been Spotted off New England

Scientists say a lack of Arctic sea ice due to climate change could have created a passageway for the mammal to travel from the Pacific Ocean

aerial shot of a Gray Whale in the ocean
The gray whale was spotted during an aerial survey on March 1, about 30 miles off the coast of Nantucket. New England Aquarium

In an “incredibly rare event,” scientists have spotted a gray whale off the coast of Massachusetts, diving and resurfacing in the waters around Nantucket. The sighting left the team astonished: The species has been presumed extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for more than 200 years.

“I didn’t want to say out loud what it was, because it seemed crazy,” says Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, in a statement.

On March 1, aquarium scientists were conducting an aerial survey flight 30 miles south of Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod, when an unusual whale caught their attention. The plane hovered over the area for 45 minutes and captured photos as the animal dove repeatedly, appearing to be feeding. Upon landing, researchers immediately reviewed their images and confirmed the species was, in fact, the rare gray whale.

“My brain was trying to process what I was seeing, because this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters,” says New England Aquarium research technician Kate Laemmle in the statement. “We were laughing because of how exciting this was—to see an animal that disappeared from the Atlantic hundreds of years ago!”

A distinct creature, the gray whale can be difficult to come by but easy to confirm. Their lack of a dorsal fin, along with trademark mottled-gray-and-white skin and a ridged dorsal hump, make the animals clearly distinguishable from other species. The gray whale is also a large presence: One of these massive mammals can span up to 49 feet long and weigh about 90,000 pounds. Commercial whalers nicknamed the species “devil fish” due to its aggressive responses to harpoons. This hunting contributed to the animal’s endangered status.

Though gray whales frequently cruise the waters of the Pacific Ocean, the species vanished from the Atlantic in the 18th century. In the last 15 years, only five of the mammals have been seen in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters. One of the observations, a sighting off the coast of Florida in December 2023, is believed to be the same gray whale spotted off New England.

A few factors could have spurred the whale’s rare Atlantic appearance. Joshua Stewart, a quantitative ecologist at Oregon State University who did not participate in the survey, tells the New York Times’ Remy Tumin that an “unusual mortality event” of gray whales on the West Coast is coming to an end, and in those situations, the animals tend to show up in unexpected places.

Additionally, scientists say climate change is likely playing a role. The Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans north of Canada, has recently been ice-free during the summer due to rising global temperatures, allowing gray whales to travel through the passage in a manner previously impossible.

This single gray whale could be a harbinger of a future Atlantic population, scientists say. “What is really cool is that we could be watching the recolonization of the Atlantic gray whale in real time,” Stewart tells the New York Times. But that process would be a slow one, he adds.

While a possible future population would take decades or centuries to build up, this individual appearance—and the small handful of others—convey a more immediate impact. “These sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic serve as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance,” says O’Brien in the statement.

Scientists still consider the gray whale to be extinct in the Atlantic, since they haven’t found evidence of a breeding population, reports the Cape Cod Times’ Heather McCarron. 

“This sighting highlights how important each survey is,” O’Brien says in the statement. “While we expect to see humpback, right and fin whales, the ocean is a dynamic ecosystem, and you never know what you’ll find.”

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