Rare gray whale, extinct in the Atlantic for 200 years, spotted near Nantucket

A gray whale extinct from the Atlantic for more than 200 years was spotted off the New England coast last week in an “incredibly rare event,” the New England Aquarium said.

The whale was spotted 30 miles south of Nantucket on March 1, seen diving and resurfacing, appearing to feed, the aquarium said in a news release.

The aquarium’s aerial survey team circled the area of the whale for about 45 minutes and took photos, and later confirmed it was indeed a rare gray whale.

“My brain was trying to process what I was seeing, because this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters,” research technician Kate Laemmle, who was in the survey plane, said in a statement. “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, which lack a dorsal fin, have mottled grey and white skin, a dorsal hump and pronounced ridges, are usually found in the North Pacific Ocean.

The species had disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century, in part due to whaling, the aquarium said. However, five have been observed in the Atlantic and Mediterranean waters in the last 15 years, including a sighting in December off the coast of Florida

The aquarium said scientists believe the gray whale they spotted is the same one sighted in Florida late last year. 

So, why are the sightings happening now? Scientists say climate change plays part.

“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,” the aquarium said.

With the sea ice that usually limits the range of gray whales gone, gray whales can “potentially travel the Passage in the summer, something that wouldn’t have been possible in the previous century,” the release said.

Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist in the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life who flies aerial surveys said in a statement: “These sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic serve as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance.”

First appeared on www.nbcnews.com

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