Whale species thought extinct in Atlantic Ocean seen off Massachusetts coast

Gray whales have been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for more than 200 years

BOSTON (WWLP) – Last week, an aerial survey team spotted a whale species not typically seen in the Atlantic Ocean — off the coast of the Massachusetts island of Nantucket.

The New England Aquarium team was flying 30 miles off the coast of Nantucket on Friday when they found an unusual whale feeding and periodically diving and resurfacing. After reviewing images of the whale, they confirmed that it was a gray whale, a species known to have been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for more than 200 years.

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

Gray whales are often found in the North Pacific Ocean and are identified by their gray and white skin, dorsal humps (with pronounced ridges), and lack of dorsal fins. The species disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century, though there have been five sightings of gray whales in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters in the last 15 years.

Researchers believe the gray whale seen Friday was the same one seen off the coast of Florida in December 2023.

Why is a gray whale in the Atlantic Ocean?

While it is rare for a gray whale to appear in the Atlantic Ocean, scientists say it could become more common due to climate change. The Northwest Passage, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through the Arctic Ocean in Canada, has become ice-free in the summer over the past few years, believed to be due to rising global temperatures.

Ice in the passage typically blocks whales from crossing into other oceans, but now they have the chance to travel through it — something that hasn’t been possible in the last 120 years.

“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,” said Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “These sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic serve as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance.”

Gray whales were almost hunted to extinction during the era of commercial whaling. Today, the whales have recovered to the point that they are considered a species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, though the organization considers the western population of the whales that live off Asia to be endangered.

Gray whales can be identified by their lack of a dorsal fin and mottled appearance that makes them very different from whales more commonly seen off New England, such as the humpback whale and minke whale. They also sound very different: While humpback whales are known for their haunting songs, gray whales make gurgles, grunts and croaks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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