Happy 2024 everyone! The holiday season usually involves a lot of travelling to visit friends and family, but we’re not the only ones. While most gray whales migrate long distances to their wintering grounds in the Pacific Ocean along the Baja Mexico peninsula, a few whales have made even longer journeys. In the past 13 years, there have been four reported observations of gray whales in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Most recently, a gray whale was seen off south Florida in December 2023. While these reports always inspire some awe for the ability of a whale to travel such an incredible distance, they also inspire questions as to why and how these whales end up so far from home.
While there used to be a population of gray whales in the Atlantic, it was eradicated by whaling in the mid-nineteenth century (Alter et al., 2015), which made the first observation of a gray whale in the Mediterranean in 2010 especially incredible. This whale was first observed in May off the coast of Israel and then Spain (Scheinin et al., 2011). It was estimated to be about 13 m long (a rough visual estimate made through comparison with a boat) and in poor, but not critical, body condition. Scheinin et al. (2011) proposed that the whale likely crossed from the Bering Sea to the North Atlantic and followed the coasts of either North America or Eurasia (Figure 1).
A few years later, another gray whale was spotted in the Southern Atlantic, in Namibia’s Walvis Bay in May 2013. The observation report from the Namibian Dolphin Project proposes that the whale could have crossed through the Arctic or swum around the southern tip of South America (Peterson 2013). While they did not estimate the size or condition of whale, the photos in the report indicate that the whale was not in good condition (Figure 2).
The most covered sighting was in 2021, when a gray whale was repeatedly seen in Mediterranean in May of 2021. This whale was estimated to be about two years old and skinny. Furthermore, it’s body condition continued to decline with each sighting (“Lost in the Mediterranean, a Starving Grey Whale Must Find His Way Home Soon,” 2021). The whale was first spotted off the coast of Morocco, then it appears to have crossed the Mediterranean to the coast of Italy and then traveled to the coast of France. Like the 2010 sighting, it is hypothesized that this whale crossed through the Arctic and then crossed the North Atlantic to the enter the Mediterranean through the Gibraltar Strait.
Most recently, a gray whale was seen off the coast of Miami in December 2023 (Rodriguez, 2023). While there is no information on its estimated size or condition, it does not appear to be in critical condition from the video (Video 1). This sighting is interesting because it breaks from the pattern that was forming with all the previous sightings occurring in late spring on the western side of the Atlantic. This recent gray whale was seen in winter on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The May timing suggests that those whales crossed into the Atlantic during the spring migration when leaving the wintering grounds and heading to summer foraging grounds. However, this December sighting indicates that this whale ‘got lost’ on its way to the wintering grounds after a foraging season. Another interesting pattern is the body condition, while condition was not always reported, the spring whales all seemed to be in poor condition, likely due to the long journey and/or the lack of suitable food. The Miami whale is the only one that appeared to be in decent condition, but this arrived just after the foraging season and travelled a shorter distance. Finally, it’s also interesting that there is no clear pattern of age, these sightings are of a mixture of adult (2010), juvenile (2021), and unknown (2013, 2023) age classes.
Another common theme across these sightings, is the proposed passage of the whale across the Arctic. Prior to dramatic declines in ice cover in the Arctic due to climate change which made this an unfeasible route, reduced ice cover in the Arctic over the past couple of decades means that this is now possible (Alter et al., 2015). While these recent sightings could be random, they could also indicate that Pacific gray whales may be exploring the Atlantic more, prey availability in the arctic has been declining (Stewart et al., 2023) in recent years meaning that gray whales may be exploring new areas to find alternative food sources. Interestingly, a study by Alter et al. (2015) used genetic analysis to compare the DNA from Atlantic gray whale fossils and Pacific gray whale samples and found evidence that gray whales have moved between the Atlantic and Pacific several times in the last 1000 years when sea level and climate conditions (including ice cover) allowed them to. Meaning, that we could be seeing a pattern of mixing of whale populations between the two oceans repeating itself.
The possibility that we are observing the very early stages of a new population or group forming is particularly interesting to me in the context of how we think about the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales. If you’ve read our previous blogs, you know that the GEMM lab spends a lot of time studying this sub-group of the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population. The PCFG feeds along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, which is different from the typical foraging habitat of the ENP in the Bering Sea. We in the GEMM lab often wonder how this subgroup formed (listen to postdoc KC Bierlich’s recent podcast here to learn more). Did it start like these recent observations? With a few whales leaving the typical feeding grounds in the Arctic in search for alternative prey sources and ending up in the Pacific Northwest? Did those whales also struggle to successfully feed at first but then develop new strategies to target new prey items? While whales may be making it through the Arctic now, there is no evidence that these whales have successfully found enough food to thrive. So, these sightings could be random or failed attempts at finding better foraging areas. Afterall, there have only been four reported gray whale sightings in the Atlantic in 13 years. But these are only the observed sightings, and maybe it’s only a matter of time and multiple tries before enough gray whales find each other and an alternative foraging ground in the Atlantic so that a new population is established. Nonetheless, it’s exciting and fun to think about the parallels between these sightings and the PCFG. As we start our ninth year of PCFG research, we hope to continue learning about the origins of this unique and special group. Stay tuned!
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Alter, S. E., Meyer, M., Post, K., Czechowski, P., Gravlund, P., Gaines, C., Rosenbaum, H. C., Kaschner, K., Turvey, S. T., van der Plicht, J., Shapiro, B., & Hofreiter, M. (2015). Climate impacts on transocean dispersal and habitat in gray whales from the Pleistocene to 2100. Molecular Ecology, 24(7), 1510–1522. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13121
Lost in the Mediterranean, a starving grey whale must find his way home soon. (2021, May 7). Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/lost-mediterranean-starving-grey-whale-must-find-his-way-home-soon-2021-05-07/
Rodriguez, G. (2023, December 19). Extremely rare and ‘special’ whale sighting near South Florida coast. NBC 6 South Florida. https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/extremely-rare-and-special-whale-sighting-near-south-florida-coast/3187746/
Scheinin, A. P., Kerem, D., MacLeod, C. D., Gazo, M., Chicote, C. A., & Castellote, M. (2011). Gray whale ( Eschrichtius robustus) in the Mediterranean Sea: Anomalous event or early sign of climate-driven distribution change? Marine Biodiversity Records, 4, e28. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1755267211000042
Stewart, J. D., Joyce, T. W., Durban, J. W., Calambokidis, J., Fauquier, D., Fearnbach, H., Grebmeier, J. M., Lynn, M., Manizza, M., Perryman, W. L., Tinker, M. T., & Weller, D. W. (2023). Boom-bust cycles in gray whales associated with dynamic and changing Arctic conditions. Science, 382(6667), 207–211. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.adi1847