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The Return of the Atlantic Gray Whale

Photo by Josh Withers, via Unsplash


Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts,

houses summer-time tourists, beautiful coastlines, and nationally

recognized lighthouses. About two months ago on March 1st, The New

England Aquarium and local news stations released footage and

aerial surveillance of a rare gray whale feeding and diving about 30

miles off the coast of Nantucket. While whale sightings are not a rare

occurrence for Long Island Sound, the resurfacing of this species of

whale in the Atlantic Ocean that was considered extinct is a

remarkable phenomenon, but holds a darker meaning of climate

change fury.


The gray whale were once found commonly throughout the Northern

Hemisphere, but now consider the North Pacific Ocean their home.

They can grow up to about 49 feet in length and normally travel alone

or in unstable, small groups due to the rare occurrence of life-long

bonds between these whales. Gray whales are bottom feeders that

can digest a wide range of sea-floor invertebrates, filtering food out

of the ocean floor’s sedimentation. This species was once considered

endangered up until 1994, when they successfully recovered and were

delisted by the ESA and are now considered stable. However, due to

recent climate change activities and changing Arctic Ocean

recent starting in 2019 and is currently ongoing. These threats are

greatly affecting their population sizes, with reductions of up to 25%

just over a few years. The availability of their food has become low,

and their ability to access normal feeding spots throughout the

Pacific has diminished; this will shock the gray whale population


Not only this, The Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic

and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean, is normally blocked by

glacial distribution but has been consistently ice-free throughout the

summertime due to global warming and rising temperatures. The

melting ice opens a water passage to species, such as the gray

whale, that will be able to “potentially travel the Passage in the

summer, something that wouldn’t have been possible in the previous

century”, according to The New England Aquarium’s press release.

While the gray whales are regularly seen in the North Pacific, there

since 2010 - indicating that this Arctic sea bridge has already begun

to alter the population of gray whales, and possibly other species.


Other possible disturbances to this species include vessel strikes and

habitat degradation, which has been on the rise over the past few

decades due to the increase in demand for offshore oil and gas

development, as well as pipelines and man-made structures.


So, what is in store for this beautiful creature of the sea? The Atlantic

population of gray whales was hunted to extinction by the 18th

century, but with the opening of the passage combined with global

warming activity heavily impacting marine life, there is uncertainty

on what will happen to the existence of this species. There is no

evidence of a breeding population right now in the Atlantic Ocean,

but according to Philip Hamilton, a senior scientist at the Anderson

Cabot Center, “the sighting represents another example of what

climate change over the long term could look like and “shows that


What can you do if you happen upon a gray whale? Make sure you

keep your distance from the creature, giving at least a safe

perimeter of 100 yards. If the whale seems to be in distress or

are trained and ready to respond. Watch your speed when on the

water, and be whale-aware of their habitats and where they spend

their daily life!


Citations

  1. Fee, J. (2024, March 6). Gray Whale Spotted off Nantucket. On the Water; On The Water. https://www.onthewater.com/gra... Gray whales experience major population swings as a result of Arctic conditions, research shows. (2023, October 12).

  2. Life at OSU; Oregon State University. https://today.oregonstate.edu/... Lenthang, M. (2024, March 6). Rare gray whale, extinct in the Atlantic for 200 years, spotted near Nantucket. NBC News; NBC UNIVERSAL. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/u...

  3. McCarron, H. (2024, March 6). Rare gray whale seen off Nantucket is good and bad news, says Cape whale expert. Cape Cod Times; www.capecodtimes.com. https://www.capecodtimes.com/s...

  4. NOAA Fisheries. (2019). Gray Whale | NOAA Fisheries. Noaa.gov; NOAA. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov...


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