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Meditteranean Gray Whale: Explorer or Lone Lost Soul

Gray whale from Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center

A lone gray whale showed up in the Mediterranean Sea this week. Biologists are baffled. Gray whales haven’t been seen on this side of the Atlantic for centuries. Is this bad news–just a lone whale hundreds of miles off track? Or good news–a lone explorer, trying out a new migration oute–or, really, an ancient one?

The Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center verified it as definitely a gray whale. Biologist are betting on the lone lost soul explanation. NOAA’s Phillip Clapham of  told Discovery that either “there has been a relict population in the North Atlantic that no one has noticed (virtually impossible), or (more likely) that this whale came down through the ice-free Northwest Passage and is now hopelessly lost.”

I’d like to think there’s a third possibility: the whale is forging a new route. Maybe in response to the whaling pressure it still faces in Asia. Migration routes aren’t stagnant. Animal populations are constantly changing, usually led by a lone male branching out looking for a mate. Marine biologists used to think the manatees that migrate up the east coast were lost, so they’d catch them and haul them down to Florida. Now they realize it’s just what they do.

There used to be four populations of gray whales, Jim Darling notes. Two–the ones one the east and west shores of the North Atlantic–are dead.

Two populations survive–on the east and west of the Pacific. The one that hugs the North American coast has been protected since 1947 and now is about 20,000. They thrive, delighting whale watchers with their friendly overtures towards boaters. Gray whales used to roam Florida to New England. Imagine the kind of animal tourism attraction we’re missing. Right in Florida we’d probably have the same magical, close-up whale watching experience people now trek to Baja to get.

The Asian population is anemic–only 100 to 200. Even though nobody is supposed to be hunting it. And no one is sure if the two populations touch.

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