Gray Whale Spotted in the Atlantic Ocean, Where They’ve Been Extinct for Hundreds of Years

Gray whales are found across the North Pacific Ocean, migrating up to 14,000 miles to get from their breeding grounds further south to summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. A recent wayward whale was spotted quite far away, though.

An aerial survey team from the New England Aquarium was flying about 30 miles south of Nantucket on March 1 when they spotted a whale that didn’t appear to be one of the usual suspects. While it dove down and resurfaced, apparently feeding, the crew was able to take photos of the animal over a 45-minute period. Though they suspected it, a later examination of the photos proved it was a gray whale, which has been extinct in the Atlantic since the 18th century.


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

While the species hasn’t lived in the Atlantic for such a long period, they have been popping up outside the Pacific more frequently. According to the aquarium, gray whales have been seen in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean five times over the past 15 years. The most recent odd sighting was in Florida this past December, and the aquarium team believes their whale may be the same animal.


The aquarium says these recent wanderers may be the result of climate change. As the whales feed in the Arctic, they’re in the neighborhood of the Northwest Passage, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This passage is typically too icy for the whales to be able to break through, but with diminishing sea ice during the summer, their chances of traveling through are now stronger.

Orla O’Brien, associate research scientist at the New England Aquarium who was also part of the gray whale-spotting team, says, “This sighting highlights how important each survey is. 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.”


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there are concerns over gray whales’ survival due to climate change, as well. The agency notes that as sea ice increasingly melts, the distribution of the whales’ prey could be shifted, leading to changes in foraging behavior, nutritional stress, and less reproduction. Water temperature and current changes may also impact environmental cues to migrate.

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