'Incredibly Rare' Whale Sighting Made Off East Coast

Gray whale went extinct in the Atlantic centuries ago
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 6, 2024 7:55 PM CST
'Extinct' Gray Whale Seen Off Nantucket
This photo by Orla O'Brien shows a gray whale south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on March 1, 2024.   (Orla O'Brien/New England Aquarium via AP)

The gray whale went extinct in the Atlantic Ocean more than 200 years ago—so researchers from the New England Aquarium were more than a little surprised to see one off the coast of Nantucket on Friday. The whale was spotted by an aerial survey plane around 30 miles from the Massachusetts island, USA Today reports. The plane circled the area for 45 minutes, taking photos that confirmed it was a gray whale, a species normally seen only in the northern Pacific Ocean. "I didn't want to say out loud what it was, because it seemed crazy," said Orla O'Brien, an associate research scientist at the aquarium.

"My brain was trying to process what I was seeing, because this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters," said research technician Kate Laemmle, another member of the survey team. "We were laughing because of how wild and exciting this was—to see an animal that disappeared from the Atlantic hundreds of years ago." In a post on X, the aquarium called the sighting an "incredibly rare event."

But gray whales might become a more common sight in the Atlantic as the planet heats up, the AP reports. According to the aquarium, this is the fifth sighting of a gray whale in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters in the past 15 years. A December sighting off Florida is believed to have been the same whale seen Friday. Experts say the whales probably traveled through the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean in Canada, which has been ice-free in recent summers. O'Brien calls the sighting "a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance." (More gray whale stories.)

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