Gray whale spotted near Israel!

Photo credit: Aviad Scheinin, IMMRAC

Photo credit: Dr. Aviad Scheinin, IMMRAC

Breaking news everyone, a gray whale was spotted off the coast of Israel! This is the first time a gray whale has been seen in the Atlantic Ocean in more than 200 years!

At first researchers thought they had spotted a sperm whale. According to an email from Dr. Aviad Scheinin, “Size, coloration and a distinct dorsal hump with successive small tubercles along the dorsal aspect of the tail stock pointed to it being a sperm whale and excitement was high, it being the first occasion when this species was sighted by IMMRAC staff.” (IMMRAC is the Israel Marine Mammal Research & Assistance Center)

Of course this is a logical conclusion considering the location and characteristics of the whale. But a closer inspection of the photos led to a much different and even crazier identification. The characteristic white scarring along the back and flukes, the dorsal ridge and knuckle and even the dive timing “continuous series of short (3-5 minute) dives” all lead to only one whale – the gray whale!

Photo credit:

Photo credit: Dr. Aviad Scheinin, IMMRAC

Whale enthusiasts across the globe are going crazy, including me as you can tell. This is so exciting. Nobody really knows what the gray whale is doing near Israel or how it got there. According to Darren Naish, science blogger and vertebrate palaeontologist, as far as he can tell “there’s no evidence from fossils or archaeology that Eschrichtius [the gray whale] previously occurred in the Mediterranean: its remains are well known from the UK (Devon being one of the best places for Grey whale fossils), the Netherlands and Sweden. However, some authors have suggested that Atlantic grey whales wintered (and bred) along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe and/or Africa (Rice & Wolman 1971).”

Yet, somehow this gray whale ended up in the Mediterranean. It’s very doubtful that this gray whale has been living in the Atlantic Ocean all along and someone finally noticed. Gray whales are easy to spot, travel close to shore and don’t dive very deep. The most logical, yet still crazy, explanation is that the gray whale traveled all the way from the Pacific Ocean. In an AFP article, Sheinin suggests the possibility of the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. If this gray whale traveled from the Pacific Ocean, it would shatter all known migration records.

Gray whales used to live in the Atlantic Ocean, but disappeared in the 17th or 18th Century. It’s not fully understood why, but most likely whaling played a role. According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, modern gray whale fossils have been “found off the Baltic coast of Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England (the most recent dated 1650), and along the coast of the United States from New Jersey to Florida (the most recent from colonial times about 1675). Based on written accounts, the last few gray whales in the North Atlantic were killed in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century by early Basque, Icelandic, and Yankee whalers.”

The gray whale near Israel looks to be about 40 feet long and appears skinny, which is not surprising considering the possible distance traveled. I will keep you posted on this gray whale as I learn more!

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