All Hail This Whale Tale

Gray whale off the coast of Baja. Photo by Joe McKenna via Creative Commons

Gray whale off the coast of Baja. Photo by Joe McKenna via Creative Commons

Mr. Zimmer, whom we have been unintentionally neglecting as a source recently, has caught our attention again.  May we never tire of whale tales:

In May 2010, a whale showed up on the wrong side of the world.

A team of marine biologists was conducting a survey off the coast of Israel when they spotted it. At first they thought it was a sperm whale. But each time the animal surfaced, the more clearly they could see that it had the wrong anatomy. When they got back on land, they looked closely at the photographs they had taken and realized, to their shock, that it was a gray whale. This species is a common sight off the coast of California, but biologists had never seen one outside of the Pacific before.

Aviad Scheinin, one of the marine biologists on the survey, posted the news on the web. “Nice Photoshopping,” someone replied.

Three weeks later, Scheinin got one more bit of news about the whale. It was photographed off the coast of Spain, having traveled 1864 miles. Then it disappeared.

After three years, a second gray whale appeared off the coast of Namibia in 2013. Comparing photographs, scientists could see that it was a different animal than the one that visited Israel. After lingering along the coast of Namibia for a month, the whale vanished.

These two sightings have left whale experts startled. In an interview with the Orange County Register, one scientists compared the feeling to walking down a street in California and seeing a giraffe.

But according to a new study, these two whales may be a hint of the new normal. Gray whales may be poised to move into the Atlantic, because we’re opening a path for them through the Arctic. But it’s not an unprecedented invasion. To some extent, it’s a case of history repeating itself.

whale-feed-250

A feeding gray whale. Davis Melzer/National Geographic

California’s gray whales give birth each winter in the lagoons of the Baja Peninsula. Then they migrate up the west coast to the Arctic for the summer. They power these tremendous migrations–the longest of any mammal–by ramming their mouths into the sea floor and filtering out tiny crustaceans from the sediment. When they rise back up to the ocean’s surface, they bring with them wide muddy plumes.

Aside from the California population, the only other known population of gray whales is a small group of animals on the western side of the Pacific. But scientists have had hints for a long time that gray whales might once have lived in the Atlantic as well.

In the eighteenth century, whaling ships off the coast of New England chased what naturalists at the time referred to as “scrag whales.” Their descriptions of scrag whales are a match for gray whales. In the 1800s, fossil-collectors picked up whale vertebrae on the coast of England. Many years later, paleontologists found that the bones belonged to gray whales…

Read the whole article here.

 

 

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