On Tuesday morning, a fisherman off the coast of Eilat, Israel spotted something unexpected: a huge whale swimming along in the Red Sea. Experts were even more surprised to discover that the creature was a blue whale—marking the first time that the world’s largest mammal has been seen in the Red Sea, as Zafrir Rinat and Almog Ben Zikri report for Haaretz.
Two days after it popped up in Israeli waters, Egypt’s environment ministry announced that the animal had also been sighted in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, according to Aham Online. The ministry revealed that the whale measures 24 meters (nearly 80 feet) long, and belongs to a subspecies known as the pygmy blue whale. Monitoring teams in the South Sinai and the Red Sea have been deployed to track the whale’s movements.
You can watch footage of the massive mammal gliding through the water and breaching—much to the delight of a group of boaters—over at Live Science.
Blue whales tend to travel alone or in pairs. They can be found in all the world’s oceans, according to National Geographic. Still, the sighting in the Red Sea, an inlet of the Indian Ocean that is sandwiched between Africa and Asia, is unusual; blue whales typically spend the summer feeding in cold polar waters.
As Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority noted in a Facebook post, however, “whales sometimes travel great distances and occasionally increase their range of migration for various reasons: availability of food, damage to other habitats, climate change and other causes.” (The post was translated from Hebrew by the Times of Israel.)
In the past, several whale species, including the humpback whale, have been spotted in the Red Sea. But only nine species of whales and dolphins are known to occur in the area regularly, according to a 2017 report by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), and large whales are very rarely seen.
Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, one of the authors of the report, tells David Obura of The Conversation that the Red Sea’s waters are not particularly hospitable to great whales. These whales usually rely on current upwellings from deep waters to fertilize phytoplankton, which are eaten by zooplankton, which are in turn consumed by the tiny critters that whales love to eat.
But “[s]uch upwellings are rare in the Red Sea,” Notarbartolo di Sciara explains. “This makes it a hard place to live for the great whales, which need big swarms of krill, small crustaceans, to survive.”
Fortunately, the blue whale that was splashing around in the Red Sea this week appears to be faring well. “It looked in good condition,” Oz Goffman, director of the Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center, tells Haaretz. “We hope that it safely returns to where it came from.”
Correction, June 7: 2018: This post originally attributed a screenshot image to the Egyptian Ministry of Environment. The image was captured by Marcos Schonholz.
Correction, June 5, 2018: This post originally attributed a Hebrew translation to Toi Staff, rather than the staff of the Times of Israel.