What is a whale native to the North Pacific doing off New England? Climate change could be the key

PORTLAND, Maine — Scientists have confirmed the presence of a whale off the coast of New England that went extinct in the Atlantic Ocean two centuries ago – an exciting discovery, but one they say illustrates the impact of climate change on marine life.

Researchers from the New England Aquarium in Boston found the gray whale while flying 30 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on March 1. The whale, which can weigh 27,215 kilograms, usually lives in the northern Pacific Ocean.

The gray whale disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th century, but there have been five sightings of the animal in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters in the past 15 years, the aquarium said in a statement. The whale found this month was likely the same animal spotted in Florida late last year, the aquarium said.

The researchers who found the animal off the coast of Massachusetts said they were skeptical at first, but after circling the area for 45 minutes they were able to take photos that confirmed it was indeed a gray whale.

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

Scientists said they were thrilled to see the animal, but its presence is likely related to global warming. The Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Canada’s Arctic Ocean, has had too little ice in the summer in recent years, they said.

That means gray whales can travel through the passage in the summer when it would normally be blocked, the scientists said. O’Brien said the animal’s arrival from New England serves “as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the opportunity.”

During the era of commercial whaling, gray whales became nearly extinct. Today, the whales have recovered to the point where they are considered a species of “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, although the organization believes that the western whale population living outside Asia is considered endangered.

They can be identified by their lack of a dorsal fin and spotted appearance, making them very different from the whales more commonly seen off the coast of New England, such as the humpback whale and the minke whale. They also sound very different: while humpback whales are known for their haunting songs, gray whales make gurgles, growls and croaks.