Whale Species That Disappeared from North Atlantic 200 Years Ago Spotted Off Massachusetts Coast

Mar 12, 2024

In what's perhaps a miracle and an omen, a gray whale was spotted last week in North Atlantic waters near Massachusetts. The miracle: the sighting itself. Gray whales all but vanished from the Atlantic Ocean 200 years ago. The omen: its recent sighting there could be a warning about climate change.        

This whale is "something that should not really exist in these waters," research technician Kate Laemmle said in a statement. She said she found herself laughing because her brain was trying to process what she was seeing. She said the sighting was thrilling.  

Laemmle was a survey team member who spotted the blotchy-colored whale without a dorsal fin. It appeared near Nantucket on March 1. But the finding soon provoked a sinking feeling among the team.   

“You’re left with the ‘How did it get there?’ part,” teammate Orla O’Brien told The New York Times, “which is, on the whole, not a (good) story.” 

The scientists theorized that gray whales, commonly found in the North Pacific, may be reaching the Atlantic via the Northwest Passage. It connects both oceans. And it is a normally frozen waterway between Canada and the North Pole. Yet rising temperatures are changing its frozen nature during the summer. This may be letting the whales pass through. It was an impossibility 100 years ago.     

There have been five sightings of them in the past 15 years in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The most recent occurred off Florida's coast in December. There are roughly 14,500 gray whales currently swimming in Earth’s oceans, down from 27,000 in 2016, stated the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that population plunge appears to be tapering off, scientists say.  

Reflect: As climate change continues to affect the world, what do you think will be some of the most striking changes we’ll see in the near future?

Photo of gray whale courtesy @NEAQ on X.

Based on numbers that appear in the story, how many gray whales are currently swimming in Earth’s oceans? (Common Core RI.5.1; RI.6.1)
a. less than 10,000
b. about 14,500
c. about 27,000
d. more than 30,000
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