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Whence the Whale

2010 May 12

Gray Whale off the coast of Israel

Science (Magazine) posted this short notice the other day.

Cetacean experts were stunned when a North Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) surfaced over the weekend off the coast of Israel—an indication that the whale came from the Atlantic Ocean, where no gray whales have been spotted since the 17th century. Most researchers think the whale hails from the eastern Pacific population, which migrates from the Bering and Chukchi seas to Mexico and California to feed and breed. But this gray whale seems to have traveled through the Northwest Passage into the Atlantic—a trip made possible because of climate change. That has cetologists excited, since it could be a first step for recolonization of the Atlantic by gray whales. This particular whale is unlikely to be part of that movement, however, as scientists say it’s too emaciated to survive. But given that it has made the journey, experts say, others will likely follow.


There isn’t much information on the net regarding Atlantic Gray Whale (Escherichtius robustus) populations.

P.J. Bryant 1995 estimates the age of subfossil Atlantic gray whale skeletons as ranging
from [8,330 +/- 85] to [340 +/- 260] years. He restates Mead and Mitchell 1984 range as from [10,140 +/- 124] to [275 +/- 35] years. What I cannot determine from the ‘free bits’ around the web is if there are fossilized remains which push the evidence for North Atlantic gray whales to back before the Holocene. Nevertheless the evidence points to their survival into the early modern era at which point it is believed that they were hunted into extinction.

In Alter 2007, genetic diversity studies of gray whales were used to estimate historical whale populations. When considering the effect of the North Atlantic gray whales, the population was modeled with a divergence stemming from the last (Sangamonian) inter-glacial.






Lindquist, O, 2000, The North Atlantic gray whale (Escherichtius robustus) An historical outline based on Icelandic, Danish-Icelandic, English and Swedish sources dating from ca 1000 AD to 1792, Centre for Environmental History and Policy (United Kingdom)URI:

S. Elizabeth Alter, Eric Rynes, Stephen R. Palumbi, 2007, DNA evidence for historic population size and past ecosystem impacts of gray whales, PNAS

P. J. Bryant, 1995, Dating Remains of Gray Whales from the Eastern North Atlantic, American Society of Mammalogists,