'Incredibly rare' gray whale spotted 200 years after extinction from the Atlantic

Researchers say rising global temperatures may be a factor in the sighting.

March 6, 2024, 8:55 PM

A gray whale, whose species has been considered extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for 200 years, was recently spotted off the coast of Nantucket, an Island in Massachusetts, researchers announced.

The "incredibly rare" event was captured by the New England Aquarium aerial survey team flying 30 miles south of Nantucket last week, according to a press release Tuesday.

Gray whales are predominately seen in the North Pacific Ocean and largely disappeared from the Atlantic by the 18th century, Aquarium researchers noted in the release.

In an interview on "World News Tonight With David Muir," Orla O'Brien, an associate research scientist who spotted the gray whale, said she was astounded by the creature's journey through The Northwest Passage.

"This whale somehow crossed from Alaska, through the Arctic, into the Atlantic Ocean," O'Brien said.

A gray whale seen south of Nantucket, MA, Mar. 1, 2024.
New England Aquarium

Initially, scientists were unsure if the whale they spotted was, in fact, a gray whale.

"I didn't want to say out loud what it was, because it seemed crazy," O'Brien, who has been flying aerial surveys since 2011, said.

Gray whales are distinguished from other species by their lack of a dorsal fin, spotted grey and white skin, and dorsal hump accented by pronounced ridges.

The whale repeatedly dove and resurfaced and appeared to be feeding while the aerial survey plane circled the area for 45 minutes, capturing images, according to the release.

A gray whale seen south of Nantucket, MA, Mar. 1, 2024.
New England Aquarium

Kate Laemmle, a research technician on the plane at the time of the event, was also shocked that a gray whale was in the region.

"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 in the release. "We were laughing because of how wild and exciting this was—to see an animal that disappeared from the Atlantic hundreds of years ago!"

While gray whales are considered extinct in Atlantic waters, Aquarium researchers say there have been five reported observations of gray whales in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters over the past 15 years.

In December 2023, a gray whale was seen off the coast of Florida and aquarium researchers suspect it may be the same whale spotted in Nantucket.

Researchers believe rising global temperatures may be a factor in the whale's journey through the Northwest Passage -- citing less sea ice in the summertime as a reason for the migration.

"The extent of the sea ice typically limits the species range of gray whales," researchers explained in the release. "Now, gray whales can potentially travel the Passage in the summer, something that wouldn't have been possible in the previous century."

O'Brien believes the latest gray whale sighting is significant in a larger conversation about how rising global temperatures can impact marine species.

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