Gray whale sighting off New England coast marks fifth documented observation outside Pacific

In a rare event, the New England Aquarium aerial survey team spotted a gray whale 30 miles south of Nantucket.

130
SOURCENationofChange
Image Credit: NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM

Gray whales have been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for more than 200 years. But in a rare event, the New England Aquarium aerial survey team spotted a gray whale 30 miles south of Nantucket on March 1.

In the past 15 years, scientists have documents five observations of gray whales in the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans including a sighting off the coast of Florida in December 2023.

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

The aerial survey plane circled the area for 45 minutes while the gray whale appeared to be feeding as it repeatedly dove and resurfaced.

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

It’s believed that climate change is the reason for the rare sighting of gray whales in the Atlantic in recent years. According to a press release, “the Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean in Canada, has regularly been ice-free in the summertime in recent years, partly due to rising global temperatures.” While the sea ice typically limits the species because it cannot break through the thick winter ice that usually blocks the Passage, it is said that the species can now travel the Passage in the summer.

“This sighting highlights how important each survey is,” O’Brien said. “While we expect to see humpback, right, and fin whales, the ocean is a dynamic ecosystem, and you never know what you’ll find. These sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic serve as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance.”

FALL FUNDRAISER

If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.

COMMENTS