Gray whale once extinct in Atlantic waters spotted off New England coast

Scientists in Massachusetts are celebrating the sighting of a whale that went extinct in the Atlantic Ocean more than 200 years ago, the New England Aquarium in Boston announced Tuesday.

The exciting discovery was reported on Friday after the aquarium’s aerial survey team spotted “an unusual whale” while flying some 30 miles south of Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod.

The massive animal, which appeared to be feeding, kept diving and resurfacing as scientists took several photos of what they suspected to be an “incredibly rare” event.

After about 45 minutes of observation, researchers were able to confirm they had seen a gray whale, a species typically found in the North Pacific that can weigh up to 90,000 pounds and measure up to 49 feet.

“I didn’t want to say out loud what it was, because it seemed crazy,” Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist at the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said in a news release.

It turned out O’Brien, who has been flying aerial surveys since 2011, was exactly right.

After showing the images to Kate Laemmle, a research technician who had also spotted the whale, both women were able to confirm the most unusual sighting.

They then started laughing because “of how wild and exciting this was,” Laemmle said. “To see an animal that disappeared from the Atlantic hundreds of years ago!”

Gray whales are easily distinguished from other whales “by their lack of a dorsal fin, mottled grey and white skin, and dorsal hump followed by pronounced ridges,” according to the aquarium.

The species vanished from the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century. Even though they are regularly found in the North Pacific Ocean, there have been five sightings in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters over the past 15 years.

One whale, spotted off the coast of Florida late last year, is likely the same one seen in New England waters last week, according to researchers — who say such “strange sightings” could be linked to climate change.

Gray whales can now potentially travel through the Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean in Canada since the area has been regularly ice-free during the summer months “partly due to rising global temperatures,” which is something that wouldn’t have been possible in previous centuries.

The spotting of gray whales in the Atlantic serves as a “reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance,” O’Brien said.