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Gray whale sighted 200 years after believed Atlantic extinction

Scientists were excited to confirm the sighting of a gray whale in the Atlantic Ocean 200 years after its purported regional extinction. The caveat, is that the impacts of climate change are likely responsible.

An exciting biological discovery has arrived with an unwanted side of existential concern.

Scientists have confirmed the presence of a gray whale off the coast of New England. For 200 years the species was thought to be regionally extinct from the Atlantic Ocean, but the fifth observation in 15 years has busted that myth.

The whale, which can weigh up to 60,000 pounds, all but vanished from the Atlantic by the 18th century, so researchers were sceptical when they initially sighted the creature off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts on March 1st.

Following the whale for 45 minutes, several photographs were able to confirm the historic encounter through the species’ distinctive speckled baleen and absence of any dorsal fin.

‘I didn’t want to say out loud what it was, because it seemed crazy,’ revealed Orla O’Brien, a researcher with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

The whales were hunted to the brink of extinction during the era of commercial whaling, but have since recovered in such numbers as to be considered a species of ‘least concern’ by conservation bodies.

The population of gray whale in Asia remains endangered, however, as several surrounding nations continue to reject ban proposals.

While the scientists were understandably thrilled to see the animal, they have conceded that its presence in the Atlantic is almost certainly attributable to climate change.

For some time, the North-west Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean in Canada, has lacked ice in the summertime. As ocean temperatures continue to soar to record highs, there is no end in sight to the cycle.

The sparsity of sea ice means gray whales, in theory, are now able to travel through the passage during the warmer months. If this theory is correct, sightings of gray whales will become increasingly frequent in the coming years.

This adaptive behaviour serves ‘as a reminder of how quickly marine species respond to climate change, given the chance,’ explains O’Brien.

According to a UN report published last month, as many as 1 in 5 migratory species are on the brink of extinction due to overfishing and anthropogenic climate shifts.

As historically significant as this latest sighting is, it probably isn’t good news.