Grey Whale

Photo by Merrill Gosho 

In 2010 the Mediterranean Sea was visited by something of a ghost, breaking the waves of the North Atlantic and reminding us solemnly of some very old mistakes. There, on the coast of Israel and to the amazement of many, swam a grey whale.

It had been at least 200 years since this particular species was spotted in the Mediterranean, or anywhere else in the Atlantic Ocean for that matter. Hunting was so fierce on our half of the planet the grey whale was eradicated in the 18th century, maybe earlier, harpooned into local extinction from the waters of Europe to those of Atlantic Canada. It’s difficult to imagine emptying an entire ocean of any one species back then, but we managed it, and the species in question was a remarkable one.

The grey whale, measuring 15 metres long and weighing approximately 36 tonnes, is the only species of whale with a protruding upper jaw, specialized for bottom-feeding. It has one of the longest migrations of any mammal, travelling as much as 15,000-20,000 km in the course of a single year.

"Over a lifetime, a gray whale migrates the equivalent distance of a return trip to the moon,” said Nicola Hodgins of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Historically, there were three populations of grey whale on Earth, all in the northern hemisphere — one in the Northwest Pacific Ocean (Japan), another in the Northeast Pacific Ocean (western Canada) and finally the North Atlantic Ocean (eastern Canada and Europe). Now there’s only one of any note - that of western Canada , numbering over 20,000.

A grey whale hasn’t been seen in Atlantic Canada since the 1700s, so of course very little is known of its time here. But from fossil records and the accounts of whalers we’ve learned they once swam the Scotian Shelf, the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, the Gulf of St Lawrence and possibly Hudson’s Bay.

But swimming in defiance of the odds is this single grey whale in the Mediterranean, spotted first off the coast of Israel and then again a few weeks later near Spain. Where on Earth did it come from?

Either this whale is the member of an Atlantic population, which somehow escaped our notice for over 200 years (unlikely), or it came from the Pacific. Its emaciated condition seems to support this second theory, betraying both its lack of familiarity with our side of the planet and the distance it must have travelled to get here. It’s been suggested this pioneer traversed either the Northeast or the Northwest passages, given the progress of climate change and the lack of sea ice in recent years.

Does the arrival of this lone whale mean the species is returning to the North Atlantic? Not necessarily, but if one whale made the trip, then perhaps others will follow, repopulating an ocean long since left empty by our unrestrained whaling. Speaking personally, seeing these mammalian beauties return on the East Coast is something I could live with.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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