Whales on the Wrong Side of the World

In May 2010, a whale showed up on the wrong side of the world.

A team of marine biologists was conducting a survey off the coast of Israel when they spotted it. At first they thought it was a sperm whale. But each time the animal surfaced, the more clearly they could see that it had the wrong anatomy. When they got back on land, they looked closely at the photographs they had taken and realized, to their shock, that it was a gray whale. This species is a common sight off the coast of California, but biologists had never seen one outside of the Pacific before.

Aviad Scheinin, one of the marine biologists on the survey, posted the news on the web. “Nice Photoshopping,” someone replied.

Three weeks later, Scheinin got one more bit of news about the whale. It was photographed off the coast of Spain, having traveled 1864 miles. Then it disappeared.

After three years, a second gray whale appeared off the coast of Namibia in 2013. Comparing photographs, scientists could see that it was a different animal than the one that visited Israel. After lingering along the coast of Namibia for a month, the whale vanished.

These two sightings have left whale experts startled. In an interview with the Orange County Register, one scientists compared the feeling to walking down a street in California and seeing a giraffe.

But according to a new study, these two whales may be a hint of the new normal. Gray whales may be poised to move into the Atlantic, because we’re opening a path for them through the Arctic. But it’s not an unprecedented invasion. To some extent, it’s a case of history repeating itself.

A feeding gray whale. Davis Melzer/National Geographic
A feeding gray whale. Davis Melzer/National Geographic

California’s gray whales give birth each winter in the lagoons of the Baja Peninsula. Then they migrate up the west coast to the Arctic for the summer. They power these tremendous migrations–the longest of any mammal–by ramming their mouths into the sea floor and filtering out tiny crustaceans from the sediment. When they rise back up to the ocean’s surface, they bring with them wide muddy plumes.

Aside from the California population, the only other known population of gray whales is a small group of animals on the western side of the Pacific. But scientists have had hints for a long time that gray whales might once have lived in the Atlantic as well.

In the eighteenth century, whaling ships off the coast of New England chased what naturalists at the time referred to as “scrag whales.” Their descriptions of scrag whales are a match for gray whales. In the 1800s, fossil-collectors picked up whale vertebrae on the coast of England. Many years later, paleontologists found that the bones belonged to gray whales.

These findings suggested that gray whales once lived in both the Atlantic and Pacific. That’s the case today for other filter-feeding whales (known as baleen whales). Species such as humpback whales and fin whales split into Atlantic and Pacific populations a couple million years ago and have remained distinct ever since.

Scientists suspected that gray whales spread across both oceans millions of years ago. Later the planet has cooled, creating an icy Arctic that formed a barrier between the two populations. The gray whales of the eastern Pacific would migrate as far north as they could manage before reaching the ice, and then head back south. Presumably the Atlantic gray whales had a similar migration. Isolated for millions of years, the gray whales of the two oceans might well have evolved into different species. If that were true, then whalers must have driven the Atlantic gray whale species to extinction, while sparing the Pacific one.

Engraving of gray whale by Charles Scammon, 1872
Engraving of gray whale by Charles Scammon, 1872

To explore the mystery of these whales further, a team of researchers has taken a fresh look at the fossils of Atlantic gray whales. Instead of just observing the anatomy of the bones, the scientists probed them for ancient DNA. They also measured the amounts of carbon isotopes in the bones to determine their age. The fossils ranged in age from just a few hundred years old to over 50,000 years old.

The scientists were able to use all this information to draw a family tree of gray whales, showing how Atlantic and Pacific gray whales were related to each other. They could also estimate how long ago the branches split apart.

The gray whale’s tree turned out to be different from those of other baleen whales. The Atlantic and Pacific populations of gray whales are not a pair of ancient, distantly related lineages. Instead, the Atlantic gray whales are actually made up of at least four different lineages. And each of the Atlantic branches is most closely related to a different branch of Pacific gray whales.

In other words, Pacific gray whales have periodically swum across the Arctic Ocean and into the Atlantic and established populations that survived for millennia. The scientists can identify several waves of immigration. One took place about 79,000 years ago, and then three others happened more recently, between about 10,000 and 5,000 years ago.

The timing of these colonizations is telling: the whales appear to have moved into the Atlantic whenever it was warm enough for them to get through. Between 135,000 and 70,000 years ago, the climate was so warm that the Bering Strait was open year-round, giving gray whales access to the Arctic Ocean. Once these gray whales got to the Atlantic, they then endured until at least 5,000 years ago.

Then a new ice age began. Glaciers grew, sea levels dropped, and gray whales could no longer get across the Arctic. Sixty thousand years passed before the ice age ended with a sudden burst of warmth. And that’s when new waves of gray whales came into the Atlantic. The Arctic then cooled somewhat, closing the door once more.

Now we are warming the Arctic again by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If history is any guide, global warming in decades to come may open up the Arctic for Pacific gray whales, some of whom may wander off their regular migrations and end up in the Atlantic.

These gray whales will encounter an ocean far different from the ocean their cousins arrived in thousands of years ago. They will have to deal with busy shipping lanes where they may get killed in collisions, along with oil drilling and industrial fishing operations. On the other hand, the authors of the new study predict that the gray whales will have lots of good habitat to live in. As sea levels rise, there will be more shallow shelves where the whales can scoop up mud to find food. Today, a gray whale outside the Pacific seems like a case of Photoshopping. Soon, however, we may be photoshopping a whole ocean of whales.

21 thoughts on “Whales on the Wrong Side of the World

  1. We better start hunting these guys again soon or they will multiply and take over the Earth.

    (Former long term Baja whale watching guide with tongue firmly in cheek).


  2. I appreciate the article and the excitement over whales expanding their territory. The comment at the end about photoshopping whales to be typical of writers demonstrating environmental concern – a reminder that the planet is fragile and we need to be careful to avoid yet further extinctions. Yet, it is somehow disappointing – like being in a tight spot, and hearing someone say ‘we’re probably all going to die’. We can infer from the article that whales are troubled, do we need to be reminded with such a bleak undertone?

  3. At the end of Philip Hoare’s book ‘The Whale’ he speculates about a world after we’ve melted the ice caps and flooded the planet, when whales can claim ownership of the whole planet, swimming over former cities. It’s about the only pleasant image of global warming I’ve ever heard (although of course the rising acidity would make this an unsure thing).

  4. Animal migration in response to changing environments? Nothing wrong with it. This is actually the reason humans had left Africa to encompass the entire world.

    They aren’t in the “wrong” place. Animals go exactly where they need to be to survive/thrive.

  5. Gee, I wonder what caused the other three openings of the Bering Straights? They just had to put in the Political Comment that Green House Gas (by man) caused the same thing to happen that happen naturally in the passed.
    “The scientists can identify several waves of immigration. One took place about 79,000 years ago, and then three others happened more recently, between about 10,000 and 5,000 years ago.”

  6. Fukushima. Repeat again and again. Does not meet with your liberal agendas? Come on repeat after me—Fukushima-Fukushima-Fukushima Diiachi. Killing our West Coast all fishes and will contaminate the Earth for thousands of years. Someone should have been executed for that whole fiasco. Nuclear Power is not safe at any level. Cost is ridiculous. Storage is extremely costly and spent rods are dangerous for thousands of years unless you make projectiles to shoot in wars and undeclared wars then mysteriously they aren’t radiating anything dangerous anymore—or some moron says so. Before you globull warming fools get on your soapboxes about coal fired power plants—how about making real non polluting atomic power plants. Oh and before one more regulation—not law (only Congress can pass laws.). Where have I read that? Is passed or recommended, please get China to stop using coal. You morons in you crippling the manufacturing agenda in the USA, never go to China and complain. Your body and head would come back in separate boxes. Unlike here in the U S A you agenda lovers walk around on your hands and feet with your naked arses in the air hoping some more of your kind will shall we say get on board.

  7. Who caused the warming that allowed them to migrate in the past? Why do they still insist that we are the cause of climate change when it is well known that the climate has been ever changing all on it’s own.

  8. 70 thousand years ago when the Bering Strait was ice free gray whales were able to cross into the Arctic Ocean and make their way into the Atlantic. What was the cause of this warming? Greenhouse gases manufactured by Neaderthals, Cro-Magnon, Homo Floresiensis or leftover Homo Erectus? You global warmer types need to take a hike and leave the rest of us alone. Your ‘settled science’ is utter rubbish.

    [CZ: Just because humans can cause forest fires today doesn’t mean that there weren’t forest fires before we showed up. The same goes for climate change. If you’re actually curious about natural causes of climate change, read about Milankovitch Cycles.]

  9. Thank you so much for this interesting and informative article! As an admirer of whales, I find it fascinating to learn more about their history, their travels, and how they are being affected by climate change and human habitation.

  10. They probably spread out like we did, from one area too crowded with their own and moved to another area. Another possibility is that they got lost.

  11. Stick to the truth and facts. To hell with human sensitivities. Increasing awareness of the collision of human civilization ops vs. the natural world is imperative. Extremely harmful noise pollution from big oil’s sonic cannons, military sonar & other increasingly harmful and destructive military tech, merchant ships, chemical composition changes, PH changes, oil spills + corexit (out of sight out of mind) lurking on the ocean floors, not to mention oceanic warming from human-induced climate change. I want to learn something from National Geo instead of reading more stall tactics words in your headlines ie: “baffled”, “mystery”, “astonished” – way too much of that nonsense from corporate media’s never-ending glossing over of serious underlying issues. Judging by the extent of this 6th mass extinction in progress, humanity has already run out of time. Humanity is destroying the ocean’s ablility to support life that has evolved over millions of years. If you are being invaded by the likes of Koch funding, just shut down your publication.

  12. I continue to be amazed that the majority of people think we, the puny humans, can do anything to stop the latest climatic changes under way at this time when these changes have been going on forever without our tiny input, compared to volcanos etc., as stated in this article.
    The planet will continue to heat and cool as and when it will.

    I recall in the early seventies scientists warning of the coming ice age and offering to spread coal dust on the ice to heat it up.

    The climate will change from time to time and nothing we do will stop the NATURAL temperature fluctuations.

    Still I am disappointed to find “man made climate change” in every article I read regardless of the subject of said article.

    From frogs to logs and everything between we are expected to feel guilty of causing any problems that occur.


  13. Amazing to think that nearly 120 years after the National Geographic Magazine first discussed evidence of whale migration through the northwest passage at times when the ice retreated that it’s likely come to pass with not just bowhead whales but possibly gray whales (see National Geographic vol x, no. 4 page 136). The interesting thing to me then becomes the migration south which I would suggest based on evidence of south – north migration of right whales in southern waters in the company of humpbacks 1000s of miles north of known usual limits might suggest these gray whales may similarly ‘tag along’ with migrating Atlantic humpbacks north to south. Let’s face it. There can be no memory of previously traversed grounds at play here as they are in a different ocean. but I note with interest the sightings of both gray whales to be on the east rather than the west Atlantic. Could it be that some innate or learned behavior sends them east. All very interesting.

  14. Life in fishbowl soon becomes toxic from the fish waste. That’s why we change the water or filter it regularly. Earth is just like a fishbowl; it’s just much bigger. If we don’t take care of it we will certainly die in our own waste – yuck.

  15. Orca have also extended their range deep into the north west Atlantic due to reduction of ice in the Hudson straight. Are the Orca following the gray whales? Orca predation on gray whale offspring has been observed and discussed in the Northwest US coast. How will these three species interact: gray whales, Orca, and humpback whales? Time will tell.

  16. Exciting news ! My mother established the American Cetacean Society in Calif. in 1967 in part from her concern for the Grey Whale. She negotiated with PEMEX to relocate their planned oil wells out of Scammon’s Lagoon.
    For over 20 years she was given control of the Goodyear Blimp to study their number and habits. Each year at the same time she would run The Blimp Op. Twice a day she would take a journalist, a scientist and a motion picture or TV celebrity up in the blimp between Palos Verdes
    and Catalina. Informal stats were kept on the sightings….and over many years these numbers gained in their significance. It also created a lot of publicity for the plight of whales in general. I wish she were still alive to hear of Atlantic sightings, although she would be frightened at the arctic melt.

    Edwin DeBus
    Washington DC

  17. It is very interesting that the gray whales have periodically migrated into the Atlantic. I will be watching over the coming years to see if reports of gray whales in the Atlantic increases. As their natural habitat changes, animals are often forced to migrate. Perhaps there are qualities of the Atlantic that are more desirable for the gray whales in times of warming. I do agree that there will be unprecedented challenges for gray whales migrating to the Atlantic. In the future, if cases of the gray whales in the Atlantic increases, there may have to be regulatory measures put in place for their protection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *