Gray Whale Extinct in the Atlantic for 200 Years Seen Near Nantucket: ‘An Incredibly Rare Event’

Gray whales disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century and have only been found up until recently in Northern Pacific waters

<p>New England Aquarium</p> A gray whale was spotted off the New England coast

New England Aquarium

A gray whale was spotted off the New England coast

A team of scientists spotted a rare sight off the New England coast — a gray whale enjoying a swim.

Scientists with the New England Aquarium had been flying 30 miles south of Nantucket in Massachusetts when they came upon what they described as an “unusual” looking whale, according to a press release from the aquarium.

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

During their aerial survey, the team was able to capture photos of the whale from above and after they returned to the aquarium and examined the images, they were able to confirm that they had captured snaps of a gray whale — which hadn’t been seen in the Atlantic ocean for more than 200 years.

<p>New England Aquarium</p>

New England Aquarium

Related: Humpback Whale Jumps Out of Water Next to Tour Boat and Waves at Stunned Onlookers

“My brain was trying to process what I was seeing, because this animal was something that should not really exist in these waters,” said research technician Kate Laemmle. “We were laughing because of how wild and exciting this was — to see an animal that disappeared from the Atlantic hundreds of years ago!”

In the photos the scientists captured, the whale could be seen diving in and out of the water.  The creature’s telltale features including its “mottled” gray and white skin, dorsal hump and “pronounced ridges” and “lack” of dorsal fin in the snaps, all pointed to the fact that it was indeed a gray whale.

The aquarium said in its release that the species disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century, but has been spotted more and more. It has been seen five times in the last 15 years in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, including off the coast of Florida in December.

<p>New England Aquarium</p>

New England Aquarium

Related: Critically Endangered Right Whale Gave Birth Entangled in Fishing Rope, Researchers Find

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, gray whales are "only regularly found" in the North Pacific Ocean. They are split into two populations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean.

The scientists attributed the new sightings to climate change, noting that the Northwest Passage, which is located above Canada and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean, no longer has thick ice glaciers impending the sea creatures' movements between the two seas during the summer due to the warmer temperatures.

The aquarium noted that the sea ice “limited” gray whales last century since they couldn’t “break through the thick winter ice” but that obstacle has now been removed with rising global temperatures.

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“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 said in the release.

“This sighting highlights how important each survey is,” she added. “While we expect to see humpback, right, and fin whales, the ocean is a dynamic ecosystem, and you never know what you’ll find.”

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