Tetrapod Zoology

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It’s just too good not to mention. Yesterday I re-posted an old article about manatee dispersal across the Atlantic. And on the same day came news that a living Grey whale Eschrichtius robustus has been seen off Herzliya Marina, Israel, meaning that at least one living, breathing Grey whale is currently swimming around in the Mediterranean (in order to make sure that Americans pick up this article while googling: Gray whale Gray whale Gray whale). A team of experts were sent out to look at it: they verified the identification and got great photos, like this one…

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As has been mentioned by journalists already, Grey whales once inhabited the North Atlantic, so the presence of a Mediterranean animal is being seen as a sort of ‘return’ of the species to the region. So far as I can tell, however, there’s no evidence from fossils or archaeology that Eschrichtius previously occurred in the Mediterranean [UPDATE: this isn't correct as Macé (2003) reported Grey whale remains from the archaeological site of Lattara on the southern coast of France]: its remains are well known from the UK (Devon being one of the best places for Grey whale fossils), the Netherlands and Sweden. However, some authors have suggested that Atlantic grey whales wintered (and bred) along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe and/or Africa (Rice & Wolman 1971, Macé 2003).

Little known is that the Grey whale was actually described from European fossils (Lilljeborg named it from Swedish fossils in 1861) before it was discovered, alive, in the Pacific. This explains why the living populations had a different name – Rhachianectes glaucus (Cope, 1868), originally Agaphelus glaucus Cope, 1868 – prior to the 20th century realisation that the European Eschrichtius fossils and living Pacific animals were the same thing.

i-2960571962881b258ea7ab6b0be2f731-Sandloega-pic-May-2010.jpg

Why Eschrichtius became extinct in the Atlantic is not really known, but it’s likely that human hunting was to blame (Bryant 1995) – it’s a slow, conspicuous, coast-hugging whale, and we know from the surviving Pacific populations that they’re extremely vulnerable to human disturbance. Evidence that Eschrichtius was known to people in the Atlantic, and hunted by them, comes from Jon Gudmundsson’s 1640-something depiction [shown above] of the Icelandic ‘Sandloegja’. Paul Dudley’s 1725 description of the ‘scrag whale’ (the basis for Balaena gibbosa Erxleben, 1777) from New England is also generally taken to be of a Grey whale.

i-ec56077ea819c008f93009cd8a536fe9-Grey-whale-Israel-tail-May-2010.jpg

Anyway, given that Atlantic grey whales have been extinct for a few centuries at least, what is one doing off the coast of Israel today? The possibility that a population lingered on and still survives is difficult to take seriously given how un-cryptic these whales are and how thoroughly Atlantic waters have been whaled, but I wish it were true! And the possibility that the whale is an escapee (!!!) or results from an introduction effort also looks somewhat unlikely, to say the least (Californian sea lions have sometimes been reported from the Mediterranean, but that’s very different). Actually, re-introduction has seriously been suggested for the species in recent years (e.g., Wolff 2000)… is it possible that covert re-introduction is underway, and that nobody told us?

What seems most likely is that the whale must have swam to the Mediterranean from the Pacific. What the hell. What route did it take? Why did it do this? Is this a one-off, or do other Grey whales wander so widely? In recent years it’s been shown that some Great white sharks Carcharodon carcharias – typically imagined as coast-huggers – wander for hundreds of kilometres across open ocean in order to get to such places as Hawaii. Is it possible that Grey whales (and other ‘coastal’ cetaceans) sometimes do likewise? This really is an incredible discovery; the sort of thing you might expect to appear on April 1st.

One or two other reports of Atlantic grey whales have been claimed over the years (they’re in the cryptozoological literature), but they’re far from convincing. I might have more to say about this in future, but this article was written in a hurry. Wow. Just… wow. The BBC news report is here.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on baleen whales see…

Refs – -

Bryant, P. J. 1995. Dating remains of Gray whales from the eastern North Atlantic. Journal of Mammalogy 76, 857-861.

Macé, M. 2003. Did the Gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, calve in the Mediterranean? Lattara 16, 153-164.

Rice, D. W. & Wolman, A. A. 1971. The Life History and Ecology of the Gray whale Eschrichtius robustus. American Society of Mammalogists, Special Publication No. 2.

Wolff, W. (2000). The south-eastern North Sea losses of vertebrate fauna during the past 2000 years Biological Conservation, 95 (2), 209-217 DOI: 10.1016/S0006-3207(00)00035-5

Comments

  1. #1 Andreas Johansson
    May 11, 2010

    How would one covertly transport something the size of a grey whale anywhere? Roll it into a carpet and put on the roof of the car?

  2. #2 Dave Hughes
    May 11, 2010

    Astonishing news. I agree that it’s inconceivable that an Atlantic/Mediterranean population could have survived unnoticed, but the alternatives seem almost as unlikely. The shortest straight-line route from California to the Med would involve swimming down the Central American Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal, then across the Atlantic and in through the Strait of Gibraltar. However, traversing the Panama Canal seems hugely unlikely to me. It’s freshwater for most of its length, has two complex lock systems to raise and lower ships over the continental divide, and in places the locks are barely wide enough for a ship to pass through without scraping the paintwork (I lived in Panama for a while, and have seen the canal in operation). I find it hard to believe that an animal the size of a grey whale could get through the locks without being noticed, and I’ve never heard of any other instance of marine megafauna being caught or seen there.

    To me, the most likely (or perhaps one should say, least unlikely) route is from the summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, across the top of Alaska and Canada, and into the Atlantic, crossing via southern Greenland to Iceland, then down the western edge of the European continental shelf to Gibraltar, perhaps in a confused attempt to rejoin its conspecifics in their warm-water breeding grounds at similar latitude (but wrong ocean!). Unlikely? Yes, but it must have got there somehow!

  3. #3 Andrea Cau
    May 11, 2010

    The only plausible explanation is shown in
    “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek_4 ;-)

  4. #4 Dave Hughes
    May 11, 2010

    Andrea Cau has cracked it. I always knew “Star Trek” was really a documentary!

  5. #5 Stu of the peak
    May 11, 2010

    It’s an interesting and intriguing idea that the northwest passage might have been ice-free long enough to allow this whale to navigate to the North Atlantic. It seems to make more sense than it swimming around the Cape or through the Panama Canal (which is actually fresh water with no measurable salinity (Menzies, 1968) ).

  6. #6 Dartian
    May 11, 2010

    Stu:

    It’s an interesting and intriguing idea that the northwest passage might have been ice-free long enough to allow this whale to navigate to the North Atlantic.

    Interesting indeed, because essentially the same idea has been offered as an explanation for the apparent increase in the number of sightings of northern Pacific seabirds (such as the tufted puffin Fratercula cirrhata that was observed in Kent last year) in the UK and other northern Atlantic countries in recent years.

  7. #7 Mark Lees
    May 11, 2010

    I read somewhere (can’t recall where at the moment) that the was some question as to whether the extinct Atlantic Grey whale was really the same species as the extant Pacific one. They are clearly similar, but the possibilty that they were separate species in the genus Eschrichtius has been mentioned. If true I guess the Atlantic form would have priority on the current name.

    I completely agree that the idea that grey whales could have been hiding out somewhere in the Atlantic seems preposterous, but none of the paths for a specimen to get unobserved from the North Pacific to the Mediterranean are exactly convincing either.

  8. #8 Dave Hughes
    May 11, 2010

    A Pacific diatom species (Neodenticula seminae) has also been recorded in the Labrador Sea off Atlantic Canada since the late 1990s, and is thought to have arrived there via the northwest passage. A warming Arctic and shrinking sea ice is predicted to lead to further mixing of Pacific and Atlantic marine biota by trans-Arctic migration.

  9. #9 David Marjanović
    May 11, 2010

    which is actually fresh water with no measurable salinity

    That doesn’t matter to a whale, unless the whale is very hungry.

  10. #10 Genevieve Long
    May 11, 2010

    More information about the whale sighting and what it means:

    http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/35171/

  11. #11 Diego
    May 11, 2010

    I have to agree with Dave Hughes and the others who have offered the Northwest Passage as the most logical explanation. Of course that leaves the question of whether this individual will find its way home again in the next migration. I hope it isn’t sundered from its conspecifics for good.

  12. #12 Dartian
    May 11, 2010

    Diego:

    that leaves the question of whether this individual will find its way home again in the next migration. I hope it isn’t sundered from its conspecifics for good.

    One can always hope for the best, but one of the Israeli experts interviewed in the Epoch Times article that Genevieve linked to says that ‘the whale is very thin’. That sounds bad; chances are that it might soon end up like the minke whale that swam 1,300 km up the Amazon in 2007. (In general, lost cetaceans do not seem to have a very good survival record; the fate of the 2006 River Thames bottlenose whale is another case that comes to mind.)

  13. #13 Sili
    May 11, 2010

    How would one covertly transport something the size of a grey whale anywhere? Roll it into a carpet and put on the roof of the car?

    Finally a use for 4x4s!

    Isn’t the Panama Canal full of locks? How would a whale pass unnoticed?

  14. #14 neil
    May 11, 2010

    remarkable stuff. Im of to the island of kefalonia today if my plane ever stops being delayed, and would have been looking for loggerhead turtles and monk seals, but now i see there are bigger fish (or should that be tetrapods!) to see in the med!

  15. #15 Hai~Ren
    May 11, 2010

    Another article about the lost grey whale is on the Discovery News website.

  16. #16 Dave Hughes
    May 11, 2010

    Grey whales, unlike other baleen whales,are mainly benthic feeders, taking mouthfuls of bottom sediment and filtering-out tube-building amphipods, polychaetes and other bugs. On a hypothetical journey around the Arctic rim and down the eastern Atlantic margin a grey whale would find plenty to eat all the way, but pickings would be very slim once it entered the Mediterranean. Benthic biomass is typically very low there. If the whale did swim the length of the Med from Gibraltar it’s not surprising that it looks in need of a meal by the time it reaches Israel. It also doesn’t bode well for its chances of finding a way back out again.

  17. #17 Arctic Ape
    May 11, 2010

    The most obvious explanation for a multi-ton whale in such an unexpected place is that someone must have started the Indefinite Improbability Drive above Mediterranean.

    Has anyone seen a bowl of flowers of any kind?

  18. #18 Woody Tanaka
    May 11, 2010

    “Isn’t the Panama Canal full of locks? How would a whale pass unnoticed?”

    By picking the locks, of course.

  19. #19 neil
    May 11, 2010

    Peter Dudley’s 1725 description of the ‘scrag whale’ (the basis for Balaena gibbosa Erxleben, 1777)

    I think it’s “Paul” not “Peter”?

    Also, Eschrichtioides from the Pliocene of Italy seems worth a passing mention here.

    Bisconti 2008. Morphology and phylognetic relationships
    of a new eschrichtiid genus (Cetacea: Mysticeti) from the
    early Pliocene of northern Italy. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 153, 161–186.
    DOI 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2008.00374.x

  20. #20 Alan
    May 11, 2010

    Amazing. Several Pacific birds have turned up in UK waters, presumably by using the NW passage route. Aleutian Tern was sighted in the Farne islands in 1979 and a Long-Billed Murrelet turned up in Devon in 2006. With more ice-free passage along the Canadian coast I expect this may not be the last. I recall reading that as the centre of diversity for auks is the Pacific, it is believed that that is where they originated.So did Grey Whales originate in the Pacific and colonise the Atlantic, or vice versa?

  21. #21 DD
    May 11, 2010

    Hey, glad you all liked it! Want some California sea lions or sea otters with that whale? We’ve got em!
    Oh, why the delay on the Stellars sea cow, we ordered it ages ago!

  22. #22 Michel RAYNAL
    May 11, 2010

    In fact, there is a scientific paper on the former occurrence of this whale in the Mediterranean Sea :
    Matthias Macé : “did the Gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, calve in the Mediterranean ?” (Lattara, 16, 2003 : 153-164).

    You can download the document here :
    http://www.archive.org/details/DidTheGrayWhaleEschrichtiusRobustusCalveInTheMediterranean

    Michel RAYNAL

  23. #23 Boesse
    May 11, 2010

    Neil brings up a good point – there are Pliocene gray whales known; and in addition to Eschrichtioides, there is another gray whale known as Archaeschrichtius, which is from the late Miocene of Italy.

    M. Bisconti and A. Varola. 2006. The oldest eschrictiid mysticete: and a new morphological diagnosis of Eschrichtiidae (gray whales). Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigafia 112(3):447-457

  24. #24 Jerzy
    May 11, 2010

    Several decades ago very big blue whale tried repeatedly to swim into Panama Canal, which ended in him being killed as a hazard for ships.

    Theory about the “right side but the wrong ocean” was also called to explain some rare pacific seabirds, like Ancient Murrelet which summered for three years in a British guillemot colony or at least two Elegant Terns which bred with Sandwich Terns in France. But seabirds, of course, can cross land.

    Interestingly, nobody checked by DNA of Pacific and extinct Atlantic grey whales – another nice topic for a study.

  25. #25 Albertonykus
    May 11, 2010

    Astounding!

  26. #26 doug l
    May 11, 2010

    What incredible news. I’m having a Farley Mowat moment here lately, and remind myself that for the first time in modern history we are not actively and mindlessly eradicating populations of marine mammals and are even taking steps to conserve their populations, to varying degrees, so I guess we should expect their populations to get around, and for that matter maybe even relic populations which might have been acting cryptically (despite their well known conspicuousness, there are some unknowns about them and we should consider that maybe they were smart enough to know that they had to avoid human vessels (and vessels since the abandonment of commercial wind power now stay in fairly well defined sea-lanes and not just all over the place…so are there some unvisited places?I’ve read that there are.)…after all, their nursery in Baja California’s Scammons Lagoon was unrecognized for along time and attributed to their barely surviving the commercial hunt on the Pacific’s west coast). I hope we’ll be seeing a comparison of this Mediterranean specimen’s DNA. Whales produce prodigeous amounts of snot and poop…and since they’re so famously conspicous one can presume that this one will be followed and its residue collected for just that. Maybe they could compare it to DNA from historic Atlantic populations preserved in either baleen or bone and now residing in some museum collection. It would seem that a comparison might also tell us something about the frequency with which the Northwest Passage became passable, at least for Gray Whales, since the beginning of the Holocene. If it was just one sighting up near Labrador or NovaScotia I’d believe it was just one vagrant, but to be seen in the Med presumes there’s currently under-utilized it and others could have exploited as it travelled?

  27. #27 Dartian
    May 12, 2010

    Darren:

    And the possibility that the whale is an escapee (!!!) or results from an introduction effort also looks somewhat unlikely, to say the least

    Unlikely but not entirely unprecedented*: in 1991, a beluga Delphinapterus leucas managed to escape from an open-air net-cage in Crimea, Ukraine (Reeves & Notarbartolo di Sciara, 2006). From 1991 to at least 1995, this particular individual has been spotted in various parts of the Black Sea (it has been sighted along the coasts of the Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey). Attempts to capture it have been unsuccessful.

    * I do realise, of course, that both from a translocation and from a captive maintenance perspective there is a big difference between a huge mysticete and a medium-sized odontocete.

    Reference:

    Reeves, R. & Notarbartolo di Sciara, G. (eds.) 2006. The Status and Distribution of Cetaceans in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea, IUCN Centre for Mediterranean
    Cooperation, Malaga.

  28. #28 Luna_the_cat
    May 12, 2010

    @doug –
    for the first time in modern history we are not actively and mindlessly eradicating populations of marine mammals and are even taking steps to conserve their populations

    Really??? What world do you live on, and can I live there? On my planet, the IWC is busy making whaling legal again.

    @David Marjanović –
    re. fresh vs. salt water, I know that with marine dolphins too much exposure to fresh water makes their skin start to slough off; why would whales be different?

  29. #29 Dale Drinnon
    May 12, 2010

    The simplest explanation is just that the Atlantic population never actually became extinct: there are known cases in the Cryptozoological literature as Darreen Naish nots, prominently one example cited by Heuvelmans in In The Wake of the Sea-Serpents, in the warmer Atlantic about the turn of the last century. But there have been others, at a low frequency, all along under the heading of another cryptid not usually recognised by researchers and the revised Sea-serpent classification by Bruce Champaign mentions it. I have no qualms about that: a KNOWN species is NEVER Cryptozoological to my definition, no matter what circumstances it is reported as being in. It must be considered just “Odd-Zoology”.

    And thank you for the lovely 1640-or-so Icelandic drawing of one such whale: I had not seen that before and it goes straight into my collection.

  30. #30 John Scanlon, FCD
    May 12, 2010

    This topic, as well as a TV show I saw the other night about Blue whales off the coast of Costa Rica, remind me to bring up the subject of accidental ship-strikes (or whale-strikes, from a POV on the ship) as a cause of mortality.

    In 1971 I was a (young) passenger on the Achille Lauro on a five-week voyage from Sydney to Southampton. That was the last year in which a sea passage was less expensive than flying, so the workhorse passenger liner was soon to become a cruise ship. In keeping with the ship’s whole career, it was a somewhat eventful voyage, what with picking up a major fraction of the British garrison leaving Singapore, avoiding the Suez canal due to various threats and rumours of war, not landing at Tenerife due to an epidemic (something I have in common with Darwin on the Beagle), and at least one suicide overboard (with dramatic dead-stop and circling search manoeuvre, at night, and without finding the person). In the southern Indian Ocean a few days short of Cape Town, I was sitting inside on one of the upper decks when the whole ship lurched and shuddered. I was quite interested in the idea of shipwreck so I started racing round the ship trying to find out what happened. Before long I was looking down over the stern and seeing a broad, bright river of blood streaming behind, with what appeared to be chunks and strips of black stuff appearing and disappearing at the surface of the churning wake. The blood remained visible for what seemed a very long time, as if the ship itself were bleeding out. I don’t recall if anyone told me we’d hit a whale or if I figured it out myself, but I was astounded that even a whale could have so much blood in it.

    Then it happened again a few days later, in the South Atlantic.

    OK, maybe that ship was cursed, but it has sometimes occurred to me that lethal whale strikes may be (or have been) far more frequent than almost anyone could imagine. If two were an average number of collisions on such a trip (for a ship of such a size and speed), the annual total would be horrendous. A quick wiki browse shows that ship strikes remain the leading source of mortality for a number of large whale species, but also hints that many such events are unreported.

  31. #31 Allen Hazen
    May 12, 2010

    That is fascinating!

    Tangential: I’ve been thinking about the idea of re-introducing Gray Whales in the Atlantic recently (occasioned by a report of a visit by the Antonov 225 to the airport here).
    (i) Economic motivation (revive economy of northeast England by developing a whale-watching industry) seemed like the weakest part of the proposal I saw.
    (ii) Transportation would be expensive but thoroughly feasible! Even a full-grown Gray, with whatever hammock and sprinkler system you need to transport it safely and comfortably, is well within the capacity of the An 225 and other large air freighters / military transport aircraft. (The Irish railways had the first of an order of mainline diesel locomotives airfreighted from Canada to Ireland so they could start crew training before the ship-delivered ones arrived: somewhat longer and twice as heavy as an adult Gray.)
    (iii) But — the fact that the current “stray” seems to be starving in the Eastern Mediterranean is relevant here — how would you teach the introduced whales the right migration routes between an appropriate North Atlantic summer feeding ground and some Scammon-Lagoon-analogue? Have a bunch of Greenpeace volunteers lead them from a boat with underwater speakers blaring “Follow Me” in Eschrichtean?

    (iv) Zoological question: does anybody know where the calving grounds for the Atlantic populations of Gray whales were? The first Europeans to go whaling in a big way seem to have been the Basques, so I would imagine that there once Gray whales in the Bay of Biscay at some times of the year, but is any more known?

  32. #32 Boesse
    May 12, 2010

    Luna,

    For one – there’s been an incredible decrease in marine mammal hunting in the last 100 years. Widespread otter hunting, sealing, etc. have almost completely disappeared in the North Pacific, with the exception of indigenous hunting in the arctic (which is sustainable). WRT whaling – whaling itself is far less intense than it was 50 years ago, with only a few countries taking part in it. Agreed, what the Japanese whaling fleet does is horrible, and should be stopped, *but* it doesn’t take as many individuals as most people think. And – best of all – it does produce a really, really large osteological sample size for whale paleontologists like myself.

    I’ve not heard of the skin coming off of baleen whales in freshwater; the Humpback whale mother and calf that swam up the Sacramento River, well, all the way up to Sacramento three or four years ago suffered no such injury. However, for whatever reason, it is much more difficult for wounds to heal for them in freshwater, and the mother had suffered a large laceration (boat? bridge impact?) and the authorities feared she would die before they made it back out to sea. In any event, they eventually were herded back to the Pacific.

  33. #33 899
    May 12, 2010

    There are a number of comments which are factually incorrect, and appear to be blatant attempts at disinformation.

    The Northwest passage is NOT ice free, and has not been so without the aid of icebreakers.

    For the latest sea ice extent, go here:
    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/

  34. #34 Morgan Churchill
    May 12, 2010

    Three points

    I have heard of unpublished molecular work on gray whales in the Atlantic…and that their is not much of a significant difference genetically

    Weak gene flow does seem to occur between different ocean basins in modern baleen whales, so obviously whales can do this, it just might be on the order of a few times a century or less.

    Bobby, actually the Japanese whaling DOESN’T give us osteological samples. Annalisa Berta remarked to me that she was sorely disappointed in the whale collections in Japan. My guess is most of the bone material goes overboard (although I would love to hear otherwise, and that their is some obscure warehouse stuffed with whale skeletons)

  35. #35 Boesse
    May 12, 2010

    Morgan – That’s too bad… if there was anything redeeming for us… I assumed they would have kept skulls at the very least, based off of all the various papers by the Journal of the Whales Research Institute. well, it’s even more of a waste than I thought it was.

  36. #36 doug l
    May 12, 2010

    I understand that the benthic feeding grounds for gray whales can sometimes be identified by distinctive scrapes as a result of their feeding activity. With increased research and surveying being conducted along the continental margins of North America and Eurasia (I suppose its possible the whales actually followed the northeast passage which while longer might have better foraging) perhaps these scrapes will be detected in areas where food sources are abundant, though, if they are as intelligent as we suspect some cetaceans might be, it’s hard to dispell the idea that they expressed a level of crypticism we don’t ordinarily ascribe to them, and that there is a relic population in the Atlantic away from the sea-lanes and fishing grounds. The sea is a big place.

  37. #37 Dartian
    May 13, 2010

    Dale:

    The simplest explanation is just that the Atlantic population never actually became extinct

    But that suggestion fails to explain the lack of reliable records from Atlantic waters for many centuries.

    899:

    There are a number of comments which are factually incorrect, and appear to be blatant attempts at disinformation. The Northwest passage is NOT ice free, and has not been so without the aid of icebreakers.

    ‘Blatant attempts at disinformation’ is a bit over the top, dontcha think? Anyway, your link shows that the Northwest passage is not ice free right now, but why should we assume that this grey whale made the crossing only during these last few months? For all we know, it might have made the crossing, say, in September 2009 (when a non-icebreaker ship did make it through), and only enter the Mediterranean very recently.

    For the record, I am not saying that the whale did come via the Northwest passage, or via the Northeast passage for that matter (in the absence of hard facts, I have no definitive opinion on this issue). I’m just saying that we can’t exclude the possibility that it did, or at least not based on the information provided by your link.

  38. #38 Luna_the_cat
    May 13, 2010

    @899 — The Northwest Passage isn’t ice-free now, obviously, but it was fully open in the summers of 2007 and 2008 and mostly open in 2009; the whale could have easily come through in any of those time periods and simply not been spotted until now. And, the open Northwest Passage of 2007 and 2008 can easily be seen in the ice extent pictures on the very Cryosphere site you link to. Look at July/August.

    @Boesse — hunting largely decreased in those animals because it had become uneconomic, but despite some attempts at conservation, most populations are still under threat simply from accidents with boats and destruction or pollution of their habitat — the manatees, for example, are not doing just astonishingly well even though we are not making deliberate attempts to kill them off. And although many people are trying to conserve whales, the “objecting” nations and the new agreement allow hunting even of endangered species, which is frankly f***ing appalling. The original phrase I was responding to (somewhat bitterly), though, was we are not actively and mindlessly eradicating populations of marine mammals — we may not be hunting everything, but we are still actively and mindlessly obliterating populations.

    @doug — you should Google the shipping routes map of Europe, or start with http://esamultimedia.esa.int/images/EarthObservation/Cumulated_Ship_Detection_Reports_H.jpg . The sea might be a big place, but the waters around Europe, and especially the Mediterranean, are pretty well covered with ships constantly (been out, actually seen this). I find it entirely possible that a single whale could stay unspotted for a year or two. I don’t find it credible that a population, even a small one, could stay unspotted for decades.

  39. #39 Stu of the Peak
    May 13, 2010

    There are a number of comments which are factually incorrect, and appear to be blatant attempts at disinformation. The Northwest passage is NOT ice free, and has not been so without the aid of icebreakers.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7160/full/449267b.html

  40. #40 Darren Naish
    May 13, 2010

    Thanks much to everyone for comments. I’ve just added a small update to the article, as – thanks to Michel Raynal – I’ve learnt that Grey whale remains (dated to 375-350 years BC) are indeed known from the Mediterranean (specifically, from the ancient Lattara site in Hérault, France).

    Atlantic grey whale skeletal material has been said to be essentially indistinguishable from that of Pacific whales (van Deinse & Junge 1937, Cederlund 1939), so cetologists have (so far as I know) been happy with the idea that the populations are conspecific. However, I’d be interested to know what molecular data says.

    Of possible interest is that Dudley described the Scrag whale as possessing ‘half a dozen’ knobs on its back, whereas living Grey whales have 9-14 knobs. This may or may not mean anything.

    Refs – -

    Cederlund, B. A. 1939. A subfossil gray whale discovered in Sweden in 1859. Zoologiska Bidrag fran Uppsala 18, 269-285.

    Deinse, A. B. van & Junge, G. C. A. 1937. Recent and older finds of the California gray whale in the Atlantic. Temminckia 2, 161-188.

  41. #41 Dale Drinnon
    May 13, 2010

    Re the “Lack” of evidence:

    This is one of the cardinal problems in Cryptozoology “as she is spoke” commonly: it is NOT that there is a “Lack” of sightings, reports, etc, those sightings are IGNORED. IGNORING a sighting does not equal “Lack of evidence”. What I always say is that the evidence is DISPUTED, quite a different thing altogether. Any number of things in Zoology are DISPUTED, and it really does not mean a whole lot.

    The problem is that when certain people set the “Sighting Respectability” bar too high, they simply throw away whatever evidence there is. And it’s their own fault.

    Once again, I do not personally consider that this is even Cryptozoology per se, and once you have an “Extinct” animal found alive, there really is no reason to argue about it. All that means is that the belief that such a creature was extinct was a misinformed overgeneralization: we also have enough misinformed overgeneralizations in the literature. it’s the easy way out and requires much less actual research.

  42. #42 cervantes
    May 13, 2010

    Most plausible explanation I can see is that this became possible due to the retreat of the arctic sea ice.

  43. #43 Drenched
    May 13, 2010

    Just the other day we had a Grey Whale in False Creek here in Vancouver. And now this! Hopefully the publicity will do them some good

  44. #44 doug l
    May 13, 2010

    Drenched: A Grey Whale in False Creek in Vancouver? Very interesting and underscores how prone to wandering they can be. For a few years I was working on the waters of Southeast Alaska and the grapevine buzzed the day that a Gray Whale was spotted lounging beneath the Park Service dock at Bartlet Cove at the entrace to the park there back about 10 years ago.
    And Luna, I too doubt that there were populations living in the Med, but not so sure about the rest Atlantic, particularly the coast of NW Africa where traffic is not as heavy or constrained. Also, these days, in contrast to the days of sail, there are far fewer crew and potential observers on deck and those that are on deck are pretty far above the surface of the water and typically pre-occupied with their duties.
    Do we know if samples from this specimen was collected? Either way, relic population or odd-ball vagrant, the possibilities are tantalizing.

  45. #45 Allen Hazen
    May 13, 2010

    About the ice-free-ness or not of the Northwest Passage–
    Maybe not worth arguing about? There has been a significant decrease in ice coverage in recent summers, which surely makes transit by an air-breathing sea animal easier (shorter distances between ice-free patches where it can catch its breath), but, since this is an animal that can dive, it could probably go through a region of partial ice coverage where a normal surface ship might want icebreaker assistance…

  46. #46 Aharon Moshe Sanders
    May 14, 2010

    Allen Hazen, you beat me to the punch. I was ready to go to sleep after puzzling over the pathway that the Grey Whale who I have given a name to: Eliyahu-Shamu. Eliyahu b/c the prophet in Judaic belief will announce the coming of Moshiach, (the literature always calls for a trip to Israel, and Shamu b/c he is the latest famous whale to make the headlines b/c he ate his trainer in February of this year.

    I was reading the explanation about a boat breaking through the Northwest…”Bering Sea, across the top of Alaska and Canada, and into the Atlantic, crossing via southern Greenland to Iceland, then down the western edge of the European continental shelf to Gibraltar…by
    Posted by: Dave Hughes | May 11, 2010 6:47 AM” then the discussion about the ice.

    I had just escaped the black hole of Facebook where I try win friends and influence people when I thought, hey the whale is not like a boat, forced to ride on crest of the water. With the ice being less dense than the water, it would make sense that the whale could indeed dive under patches of ice and hold its breath as whales do until it found a suitable place to come up for air.

    However all that just deals with how our friend Eliyahu Shamu got there, and does not at all address what will the poor mis-directed whale do for its sustenance while he is sojourning in the Mediterranean.

    I was reading:

    If the whale did swim the length of the Med from Gibraltar it’s not surprising that it looks in need of a meal by the time it reaches Israel. It also doesn’t bode well for its chances of finding a way back out again.
    Posted by: Dave Hughes

    I thought to myself, how could we build up trust in him to so that we could somehow help him get a good meal in him for the trip back. Amazingly I had simply considered some sort of derivation of a guided tug boat tour, as explained below and never seriously thought that they would try to load him on a truck, (as in the movie Free Willie)

    Allen: ” Have a bunch of Greenpeace volunteers lead them from a boat with underwater speakers blaring “Follow Me” in Eschrichtean?

    Allen, that is pretty much how I imagined it would work.

    Has Eliyahu Shamu been spotted anywhere else? Are we (the people of this blog) going to book a flight, for a half dozen of us, try to get a great deal in a seafood bargain basement by weight for a half ton of: “sea stars, oysters, clams, sea cucumbers” (actually we might nix the sea cucumbers I believe they are rather expensive)and/or any other Benthic organisms that are appetizing to Eliyahu Shamu and that our budget can handle. I suggest that maybe Dave Hughes, could handle that.

    Seriously though does Green Peace still have some sort of budget for Whale rescues such as this?

    Aharon Moshe Sanders
    May 14, 2010 1:20Am
    EST Passaic, NJ

  47. #47 Dartian
    May 14, 2010

    Doug:

    the coast of NW Africa where traffic is not as heavy or constrained

    This map suggests otherwise.

    And that map only shows major commercial shipping lanes. In addition to those, there are of course also cruising ships, navy vessels, commercial fishing fleets, local fishermen’s boats, et cetera out there.

    these days, in contrast to the days of sail, there are far fewer crew and potential observers on deck and those that are on deck are pretty far above the surface of the water and typically pre-occupied with their duties

    But these are grey whales we’re talking about. They are mainly coastal and they can, and do, get observed from people on the shore too. (Or indeed from the air, from a plane or from a helicopter.)

    And speaking of people, if there is a remnant Atlantic grey whale population out there, why don’t any of the locals seem to know about it? There are plenty of people living along the NW African coast. And it’s not like nobody there has any interest in the sea and what’s in it – to the contrary, many local people’s livelihood depends on the sea. Morocco, for example, has a pretty substantive fishing industry. (On a smaller scale, some traditional fishermen in Mauritania are very familiar indeed with the local cetaceans; as you may have seen in TV documentaries, they cooperate with dolphins which drive fish into their nets.) All this would seem to add up to make the grey whale a rather highly ‘discoverable’ species.

  48. #48 tdh
    May 14, 2010

    Star Trek? Somebody’s taken too much LDS.

    Webster’s 2nd/3rd give “gray” the heading, but equal status with “grey.” The former, which seems more common in America (except in names), is etymologically truer to Germanic including English (O.E. “ae” tending to have reverted to “a”), the latter, by accident, to Indo-European.

    If the whale’s compass is any good, it’s trapped, and needs a push out the Suez or something.

  49. #49 Steve Wood
    May 14, 2010

    Re: Freshwater/Salt water…
    In 2007 we had two humpback whales (“Delta” and “Dawn”) here in San Francisco Bay and the Stockton Shipping Channel for an extended period of time – about 21 days. About 2 weeks after the first sightings, they developed some unusual skin lesions and discoloration which later subsided. I’m speculating the freshwater was not terribly good for them.

    Re: tdh @ 48
    If the whale can push out the Suez, maybe it can join the West Pacific population, which has an effective breeding size of about 100 individuals (actual population size is likely close to twice that.) Sadly, it’s unlikely this will happen, but a tetrapod can dream, can’t it?

  50. #50 Andrew
    May 14, 2010

    Dartian: Nice map! And of course you’re right about the activity around north Africa. However, I note that large portions of the Med and Black Seas are effective white zones with little commercial shipping. Could there be relict pops of Grays there? I realise some of these areas are swarming with non-commercial shipping, but about the coast of Libya and the Gulf of Sidra. It’s one big white spot on your map.

    Surviving population of Grays here? Interviewing local fisherman on the docks of Tripoli would be the obvious first step…

  51. #51 SC (Salty Current)
    May 15, 2010

    [UPDATE: this isn't correct as Macé (2003) reported Grey whale remains from the archaeological site of Lattara on the southern coast of France]

    Macé Gray – it was huge there for a while!*

    *Sorry. I try.**

    **Sorry again.

  52. #52 Dartian
    May 15, 2010

    Andrew:

    the coast of Libya and the Gulf of Sidra. It’s one big white spot on your map. Surviving population of Grays here?

    From an ecological point of view, the idea that a population of large mysticetes would or could stay confined within one such relatively small part of the sea is hugely unlikely. Baleen whales need food – and immense amounts of it – and if they remained in one particular spot they’d soon deplete its food resources. They would have to move away. That’s a major reason (and perhaps the major reason) why mysticetes have evolved to be such extreme long-range migrants; they have a constant need to find rich feeding grounds to exploit.

  53. #53 Andrew
    May 15, 2010

    Dartian: Fair enough! Just was hunkering after a secret colony of Atlantic Grays lurking *somewhere*. I guess long range migrant seems the best explanation, but far end of the Med just seems kinda *extreme*.

  54. #54 Allen Hazen
    May 16, 2010

    Andrew–
    Extreme, but haven’t you ever been lost? “Gee, I didn’t remember it was *this* far to Scammon Lagoon, but I’m sure I haven’t passed it, so….”

  55. #55 Lowell1
    May 17, 2010

    It seems to me that it should be possible to herd the animal back out thru Gibraltar. If there’s food for it on the Atlantic, why try to get it back to the Pacific? It would seem more logical to try to find out what sex this one is and get another over to the Atlantic and re-establish Grey Whales in the Atlantic. For one thing, if the populations spread out, it gives them more room to expand their numbers. It doesn’t seem like this whale was followed by others (thru Panama or the NW Passage or however it got to the Atlantic) – too bad. One can hope that if another whale does this that it will bring along a companion.
    Vr, Lowell1

  56. #56 mandas
    May 17, 2010

    I have had an interesting discussion on this issue on a different blog, and there were a variety of opinions on what has happened here, with the consensus being that the animal simply got lost.

    However, despite some of the discussion, I still don’t buy that idea. I am leaning towards (and this hypothesis contains a LOT of assumptions) a density dependent dispersal of a Pacifc Grey. The whale would have left the group and would have dispersed across the north of Russia via the Northern sea route (not across the north of Canada) and down into the eastern Atlantic.

    As I admit, this requires a couple of important assumptions. Firstly, that the whale is an adolescent or mature male (does anyone know?), and that the sub-population group in the Pacific is close to or at carrying capacity. Admittedly, the numbers of whales in the past would have been much higher than now, which suggests that this may not be the case, but given changes to the ocean environment from bottom trawling etc, it may well be that the available food supply in the region has diminished, and dispersal may start becoming more common.

    Anyway, just a thought to throw into the mix. I suggest that it is at least plausible that this is the explanation, but there are bound to be many who would disagree with me.

  57. #57 eddie
    May 18, 2010

    Maybe it’s some weird publicity stunt for the remake of Moby Dick

  58. #58 Dartian
    May 19, 2010

    Eddie:

    Maybe it’s some weird publicity stunt for the remake of Moby Dick

    Believe it or not, a Hollywood movie about grey whales is currently in production (and set to be released in 2012)! The film is supposed to be about the three individuals that got trapped by the ice near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988, and about the joint US-Soviet rescue operation to free them.

  59. #59 Alan
    May 24, 2010

    The animal in question went south along the Asian coast, then west through the Indian Ocean until it eventually reached the Suez canal. It transited the canal and wound up off the coast of Israel. A longer journey, but you avoid all that dang ice.

    Search for anomalous whale sightings prior to the incident reported.

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