Gray Whale ‘Extinct’ for Centuries—Spotted in Cape Cod

In an extremely rare occurrence, the New England Aquarium aerial survey team spotted a gray whale off the New England coast last week—a species thought to be extinct in the Atlantic for over 200 years..

On March 1, while flying 30 miles south of Nantucket, aquarium scientists observed a peculiar whale engaging in repetitive diving and surfacing behavior, indicative of feeding. The aerial survey plane circled the area for 45 minutes, allowing for additional photo documentation. Upon reviewing the images, the scientists confirmed their initial disbelief—it was indeed a gray whale.

Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, initially expressed her skepticism, stating, “I didn’t want to say out loud what it was because it seemed crazy.” Kate Laemmle, a research technician present on the plane, described the sighting as both wild and exciting, given the species’ long absence from Atlantic waters.

Gray whales are typically found in the North Pacific Ocean, identifiable by their distinctive features such as the absence of a dorsal fin, mottled grey and white skin, and a dorsal hump with pronounced ridges. Although extinct in the Atlantic by the 18th century, there have been recent observations in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, including off the coast of Florida in December 2023.

Aquarium scientists suspect the gray whale sighted off New England is the same one observed in Florida late last year. Climate change is proposed as a contributing factor to these unusual sightings, with the ice-free Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean, allowing gray whales to potentially travel during the summer.

A historical account from 1729 mentioned the last sighting of a gray whale off the Massachusetts coast. But now, it seems like they might be back.

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