Gray Whale Spotted on Wrong Side of World

Scientists wonder why whale has been spotted on the wrong side of the world.

May 12, 2010, 10:29 AM

May 12, 2010— -- 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.

And yet...

"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:

Due to the climate changes and the melting of the ice in the Northwest Passage especially during the years 2007-8, a corridor could have been created in the summer, enabling the whale to travel through it to the North Atlantic. In autumn, it may have started to migrate southward as it would do in the Pacific, maintaining the European continental shelf on the left, in a similar manner to the eastern Pacific migration. Instead of turning left to the Gulf of California it may have turned left into the Mediterranean Sea through Gibraltar Straits and all the way to the Eastern Mediterranean.

In other words, a summering gray whale north of Alaska, swimming eastward along the Alaska coast, may have been able to take advantage of ice-free conditions to continue swimming eastward, all the way through the Canadian Archipelago and west of Greenland, (or, perhaps more likely, westward, above Russia and Europe, via the Northeast Passage) until instinct instructed it to turn south and ultimately hang a left.

With the Northwest Passage predicted to open up with greater frequency in future years as a result of warming temperatures, says Clapham, "I doubt that this whale will be the last."

Unfortunately, said Scheinin, there are no funds to enable the wayward whale to be tagged and followed by satellite (although a biopsy dart to gather DNA and confirm its provenance may be possible). The lengthy journey appears to have exacted a toll, and its emaciated condition suggests that the possibility of it successfully undergoing a return voyage to the Pacific is, in Scheinin's words, "rather slim."

For now at least, the whale is very far from home and very much alone.