Gray whale, species extinct in Atlantic Ocean for 200 years, seen off Nantucket


NANTUCKET – A gray whale was spotted off the Massachusetts coast recently in what experts call an “incredibly rare event.” The species has been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for more than 200 years.

Scientists from the New England Aquarium were flying about 30 miles south of Nantucket on Friday when they saw the whale diving and resurfacing repeatedly as it appeared to be feeding.

What is a gray whale?

Researchers in the airplane circled above the creature for about 45 minutes, taking photos in order to confirm their belief that it was a rare gray whale.

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

The aquarium said that gray whales are easily distinguished from other species because they lack a dorsal fin and have certain features in their skin and dorsal hump.

Where do gray whales live?

Though gray whales are seen regularly in the northern Pacific Ocean, they have been extinct from the Atlantic Ocean since the 18th century.

There have been five sightings in the Atlantic and Mediterranean waters over the last 15 years, researchers said. One of those was off the coast of Florida in December. The aquarium scientists believe the one they saw Friday was likely the same whale seen in Florida.

Extremely rare in Atlantic Ocean

After taking photos, O’Brien showed them to research technician Kate Laemmle, who was on the plane as well.

A gray whale seen swimming about 30 miles off Nantucket. / Credit: New England Aquarium

A gray whale seen swimming about 30 miles off Nantucket. / Credit: New England Aquarium

“My brain was trying to process what I was seeing, because this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters,” Laemmle 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.”

Impact of climate change

New England Aquarium scientists believe climate change is responsible for the Atlantic and Mediterranean sightings. They say the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans above Canada has been ice-free in recent summers, allowing the whales to pass through.

“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,” O’Brien said. “These sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic serve as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance.”

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