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Scientists spot a rare species of gray whale that went extinct from Atlantic 200 years ago

New England Aquarium released a statement, confirming that a special type of gray whale, which was thought to have gone extinct is still in the ocean.

Scientists spot a rare species of gray whale that went extinct from Atlantic 200 years ago
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Ivan Stecko; New England Aquarium | Orla O'Brien

Our ecosystem maintains its balance with the presence of various species other than just humans. To preserve the endangered species from becoming extinct, many organizations work towards this approach. However, many species died before they got a chance at repopulation. Among these creatures, there is a certain type of gray whale, which has reportedly been extinct for more than 200 years in the Atlantic. Surprisingly enough, the first of its kind has been spotted after two centuries in New England in an "incredibly rare event," per New England Aquarium.

Cover Image Source: New England Aquarium
Image Source: New England Aquarium

This gray whale was spotted on March 1, 2024, about 30 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, while diving and resurfacing repeatedly, possibly to feed. An aerial survey from the New England Aquarium's team pinpointed the area where the whale appeared and they even managed to take its photographs, which were later confirmed to be that of a rare breed of gray whale. "My brain was trying to process what I was seeing because this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters," Kate Laemmle, a research technician who was in the survey plane, said in a statement. "We were laughing because of how wild and exciting this was—to see an animal that disappeared from the Atlantic hundreds of years ago!"

These gray whales lack "dorsal fin, mottled grey and white skin, and dorsal hump followed by pronounced ridges." They were usually found in the North Pacific Ocean, per the Aquarium's statement. This whale's species reportedly vanished from the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century due to the intense whaling practices. In the last 15 years, there were some five sightings of these gray whales and one of them was spotted near Florida in 2023. The scientists associated with the Aquarium believe this one is the same gray whale spotted last December. The experts believe that the sudden sightings of these rare species of whales are due to climate change.

Image Source: New England Aquarium
Image Source: New England Aquarium

"As waters warm and the ice sheets have receded, the only logical to explain how the whale got to the Atlantic is that the whale was able to find a passageway from Alaska through the Arctic and into the Atlantic," Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist in the Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life who does aerial surveys, told CBS Boston. In recent years, the Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean in Canada, has regularly been ice-free in the summertime, somewhat due to rising global temperatures, the Aquarium further said in the statement.



"The extent of the sea ice typically limits the species range of gray whales, experts say, as the whales cannot break through the thick winter ice that usually blocks the passage. Now, gray whales can potentially travel the passage in the summer, something that wouldn't have been possible in the previous century." "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 added.

O'Brien and a colleague were doing an aerial survey off the coast of Nantucket, where they were looking for right whales, fin whales and humpbacks when they spotted the whale surfacing. "And the next time it came up and we got better photos of the head and the whole body. It was hard to believe," O'Brien said in an interview with CBC Radio's Shift. "I don't even want to say what I think this is out loud because I don't think you're going to believe me," she informed her colleague Kate Laemmle in disbelief. Laemmle confirmed that it was a gray whale indeed.


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