Initially, the sighting seemed an opportunity rather than an anomaly, and certainly not the highly unexpected discovery it turned out to be.
Last Saturday, researchers with the Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center (IMMRAC) took to the water to study a whale approximately a mile and a half off Herzliya Marina, just north of Tel Aviv. The whale, which was about forty feet long, was generally behaving as a whale does: swimming along the surface, making periodic short dives of between three and five minutes duration, and occasionally showing its tail flukes as it did so.
For about two hours, the researchers followed the whale as it swam slowly south along the coast; noting its size and the fact that it had a dorsal hump rather than the dorsal fin characteristic of most baleen whale species, they concluded that it was a sperm whale - exciting news indeed, as they had not before seen a sperm whale in the region.
Yet, some things weren't quite right: The blowhole of a sperm whale is close to the front of the head, but on this whale it was clearly situated further back. The dorsal region wasn't wrinkled the way it should have been, and the skin was patchy in color. It was only after returning to shore and closely examining the photographs they had taken that the researchers allowed themselves to acknowledge that what they had seen was, in fact, a gray whale.
There was only one problem.
There are no gray whales off Israel.
There are no gray whales in the Mediterranean.
There are, in fact, no gray whales in the Atlantic - have not been, for that matter, since the eighteenth century, when the species was possibly exterminated from the hemisphere by commercial whalers.
Today, gray whales exist in two populations, both in the Pacific: a critically endangered western Pacific population believed to number fewer than 200 individuals, and an eastern Pacific population of approximately 20,000. Members of the latter breed in the lagoons of Baja California; swim north along the coasts of Mexico, the United States and Canada to feed in the Arctic waters north of Alaska and northeastern Siberia; and then return south.
None of them swim within half a planet of the Holy Land.
"There is no doubt that this is a gray whale, and as such the sighting is little short of astonishing," said Phillip Clapham of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an e-mail. "There are really only two explanations: that there has been a relict population in the N Atlantic that no one has noticed (virtually impossible), or (more likely) that this whale came down through the ice-free Northwest Passage and is now hopelessly lost."
Added Dr. Aviad Scheinin of IMMRAC: