Grey whale makes surprise Atlantic appearance

The grey whale was seen off the New England coast. Image: New England Aquarium

A whale species that disappeared from the Atlantic 200 years ago has been spotted in the ocean's waters by a research team.

The grey whale was seen off the New England coast, Boston, by New England Aquarium scientists who were conducting an aerial survey.

Grey whales are regularly found in the North Pacific Ocean. They are easily distinguished from other whale species by their mottled grey and white skin, and dorsal hump followed by pronounced ridges.

The species disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean by the eighteenth century, but in the last 15 years, there have been five observations of grey whales in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, including off the coast of Florida in December 2023.

Aquarium scientists were flying 30 miles south of Nantucket in March 2024 when they spotted the whale. The animal repeatedly dived and resurfaced, appearing to be feeding. After the encounter, the scientists reviewed the images and confirmed it was a grey whale.

"My brain was trying to process what I was seeing. This animal should not really exist in these waters.”

Kate Laemmle, New England Aquarium
The grey whale repeatedly dived and resurfaced, it appeared to be feeding. Image: New England Aquarium

Orla O’Brien, associate research scientist at the New England Aquarium, said, “I didn’t want to say out loud what it was, because it seemed crazy.”

Kate Laemmle, research technician, said, “My brain was trying to process what I was seeing, because this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters.”

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

New England Aquarium. Image: Bernd Dittrich, Unsplash

To explain the strange sightings, the aquarium's scientists point to climate change. The Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean in Canada, has regularly been ice-free in the summer in recent years, partly due to rising global temperatures.

The extent of the sea ice typically limits the species range of grey whales, experts say, as the whales cannot break through the thick winter ice that usually blocks the Passage. Now, grey whales can potentially travel the passage in the summer, something that would not have been possible in the previous century.

O’Brien said, “This sighting highlights how important each survey is. While we expect to see humpback and fin whales, the ocean is a dynamic ecosystem and you never know what you’ll find. These sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic serve as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance.”