Second gray whale for the Atlantic

16th May 2013

Prior to 9th May 2010, we'd have said the only way IWDG members could see gray whales was by joining an overseas trip to Baja California in Mexico, such as the members trip we delivered in 2009. This would have been a reasonable assumption based on the fact that the Atlantic gray whale had not been seen dead or alive anywhere in the Atlantic since the 17th century; presumably extinct.  Then something remarkable happened.

On 9th May 2010 researchers observed and photographed a solitary gray whale in the Eastern Mediterranean off the Israeli coast. Several weeks later and 2,000 miles to the west, on May 30th the same individual was photographed and matched near Barcelona on the Spanish east coast.  Despite efforts to track it and to secure a biopsy sample that could confirm which Pacific stock this individual was from, there were no further sightings.  But within the last week a 2nd gray whale has now been observed some 6,000+ miles to the south and on the other side of the equator, in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Thankfully the animal has remained in the area over a number of days, enabling researchers confirm its species and secure useable photo ID images of it, which confirm that this is a second gray whale, and not the same animal seen in the Mediterranean in May 2010.  

This is the first confirmed record of this species in the South Atlantic, raising further questions about whether it could have travelled around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and crossed the Atlantic, or whether like the Mediteranean animal it entered the Atlantic via the Canadian Northwest passage. Either way, it is a fascinating discovery, and points strongly towards a dramatic shift in distribution facilitated by climate change.  This is a timely reminder that we should never assume to know what species occur in our local waters, especially when this species seems to have literally come back from the dead. If these two remote sightings point to a slow recovery of this species in the Atlantic, then we may need to update the field guides, as they are likely to be missing at least one whale species.

Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Co-ordinator

 

A more detailed back story and photographs confirming species identify are available for viewing on the Namibian Dolphin Project blog:  
Photographs and story by John Paterson of the Albatross Task Force and Walvis Bay Strandings Network
 

A rare and mysterious visitor in Walvis Bay


by: John Paterson, Albatross Task Force and Walvis Bay Strandings Network
 
Gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus, live in the high Arctic and northern Pacific Oceans coming as far south as Baja California and Mexico on the west coast of America and the Korean Peninsula to breed in summer. It used to occur in the North Atlantic Ocean, but was hunted to extinction in the 1700’s. It does not venture south of the equator. Or so we thought.
 
Last Saturday, 04 May 2013, tour boats doing dolphin cruises to Pelican Point saw a strange whale. Several more sightings during the following week seemed to indicate the unlikely fact that a gray whale was visiting Walvis Bay! On Sunday 12 May a member of the Walvis Bay strandings network confirmed the reports that there was a gray whale about. This is the first known record of this species in the Southern Hemisphere. The question is now “what is the origin of this whale?”
 
In May 2010 a gray whale was seen off Israel in the Mediterranean sea and the same whale was seen 22 days later in Spanish waters, also in the Med. This sighting raised much speculation on the origin of the whale and the reasons for its appearance. It was suggested that the whale originated from the eastern Pacific population and was able to navigate around the northern Canada due to the reduction in size of the Arctic ice cap caused by global warming. This climatic trend would potentially allow these whales to re-colonise their historic range in the north Atlantic. The authors of that report stressed that it was difficult to draw conclusions from a single event and were only proposing likely hypotheses. Three years later a gray whale makes its mysterious appearance in Walvis Bay. Comparing photographs of the Walvis Bay animal with the Mediterranean animal (courtesy of Aviad Scheinin -  http://www.hamaarag.org.il ), it seems unlikely that this is the same individual. Is it another individual that has traversed the North West Passage, or perhaps travelled around the southern tip of South America and across the Atlantic? Unfortunately, we’ll never know the route it followed to get here but keen eyes on the water may tell us where it goes next, so please send your reports to the WBSN if you see this animal.
 
Gray whales grow up to 14 m in length and undertake the longest known migration of any mammal completing a round trip of over 30,000 km between their summer feeding grounds in the high Arctic and winter breeding area off the coast of Mexico returning to the high Arctic again. The whale seen off Israel had completed the longest known stray by any mammal. Though they are baleen whales gray whales are unique in that they feed off the bottom of the sea floor by sucking up mud, usually through the right side of their mouths, and filter out the bottom mud dwelling amphipods on which they feed. This results in the baleen being shorter in one side of their mouths.

This sighting highlights the chances of seeing amazing animals in Namibia and also how important our marine environment is to sea life. Well done to the marine tour operators for locating this whale and operating in a responsible manner and not scaring the whale off. The Walvis Bay Strandings Network would like to thank the tour operators for passing on all sightings of this whale and particularly Mola Mola Tours for making space on their vessel so that we could confirm the identification and get photographs.

End