The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Gray whale photographed off Namibia is first-ever documentation of species in Southern Hemisphere

Lost and lonely whale could have entered Atlantic via Northwest Passage

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A gray whale has been spotted and photographed off Namibia, marking the first-ever documentation of the species (Eschrichtius robustus) in the Southern Hemisphere.

It’s also only the second-known gray whale to have been documented in the Atlantic Ocean in modern times. The other was spotted in 2010 off Spain and Israel.

The 2010 sighting was described by one scientist as “the most amazing sighting in the history of whales,” so imagine the buzz this latest sighting—in an area that has no history or fossils of gray whales—will create among marine mammal enthusiasts once the news is widely reported.

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Graphic shows possible routes taken by the gray whale now off Namibia, and another that showed off Israel in 2010. Credit: Uko Gorter

It’s possible that both animals entered the Atlantic via the Northwest Passage, which has been partially free of ice for brief periods during the past four years—a phenomenon attributed to climate change.

Gray whales used to inhabit the North Atlantic, but the population became extinct hundreds of years ago.

The whale off Namibia, photographed by the Albatross Task Force and Walvis Bay Strandings Network, is not believed to be the same whale spotted off Spain and Israel.

“It’s tantalizing because it’s a mystery,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a researcher with the American Cetacean Society. “We don’t know how this whale got so far from where gray whales are supposed to be.”

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There are only two existing gray whale populations. There’s a recovered population of about 22,000 in the eastern Pacific; those mammals range from Arctic waters (Alaska region) to Baja California.

There’s also a critically endangered population of about 130 animals in the western Pacific. They range from Russia to the Korean Peninsula.

The gray whale off Namibia was first spotted May 4 by crews aboard dolphin tour boats in the Pelican Point area in Walvis Bay. They were not sure what type of whale it was until a week later (May 12) when a member of the strandings network confirmed it was a gray whale.

“The question now is, ‘What is the origin of this whale?’ ” John Paterson wrote on the strandings network website. “Is it another individual that has traversed the Northwest Passage or perhaps traveled around the southern tip of South America and across the Atlantic?”

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Schulman-Janiger, who runs the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project in Southern California, said it’s more likely that the whale traversed the Northwest Passage.

“It just makes more sense because there are so many gray whales up in that area during the summer, and that if there was a path through the ice it could just swim right through into the Atlantic,” she said. “It makes less sense that a whale that’s supposed to travel only as far as Baja would keep going and swim all the way down to the tip of South America, near the Antarctic, and enter the Atlantic that way.”

Said Wayne Perryman, a gray whale expert with NOAA Fisheries: “I think it’s just blind luck for a whale to get through. It’s like a maze up there. My guess is that it was feeding and looking for food, and when ice formed behind it the whale probably just kept going. These animals are ranging farther north and east to find food so that makes the most sense.”

Scientists have discounted the Panama Canal as a possible passage route.

Schulman-Janiger said that this sighting and the 2010 sighting could be a sign of the times in this era of climate change, and that if gray whales can make it into the Atlantic, other species in the Atlantic can make it into the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Walvis Bay Strandings Network is trying to keep tabs on the lost and lonely gray whale and is asking locals to share sightings information.

–Gray whale photos are courtesy of John Paterson/Namibia Dolphin Project