Marc Webber, USFWS


Atlantic Gray Whale

Scientific Name:
Eschrichtius robustus
55 - 80 years

A gray whale sticks its head out of the water to take a look around, a behavior called “spy-hopping.”


hand-drawn letters in watercolor spelling Atlantic Gray Whale

by Richard J. King

“Rare Gray Whale Spotted in Atlantic—First in Over 200 Years.” So read a headline this past March 2024 in Forbes magazine. Several other news outlets published similar stories. Whale surveyors from New England Aquarium, peering down from an airplane over waters south of Nantucket Island, saw something they had never witnessed: a gray whale swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Although common today in the eastern North Pacific, they have long been considered extinct in the Atlantic.

Yet this was not the first time in recent years that this has happened. In 2010, whale biologists identified a gray whale in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel, then later off the coast of Spain. In 2013 a different gray whale was spotted in the South Atlantic off Namibia, even farther from their known range. In 2021 biologists tracked a young male gray whale in the Mediterranean off the coast of France. And last year, a father and son on a fishing trip filmed a gray whale off Florida, which was likely the same individual seen this past spring to the south of Nantucket.

whale surfacing

This Atlantic gray whale made national news when it was spotted swimming south of Nantucket last summer. Photo courtesy New England Aquarium.

The most-likely scenario, biologists think, is that with recent die-offs of gray whales in the Pacific and with global warming, which has opened a passage through the Arctic in summer months, an occasional adventurous—or desperate or confused or hungry—gray whale has explored farther afield.


For hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of years, all the way up until the 1600s or early 1700s, populations of gray whales lived year-round in the Atlantic. Inspired by the recent sightings of gray whales in this ocean, in 2015 a team of scientists compared the DNA of living gray whales in the Pacific to that of the few known fossils and old bones of Atlantic gray whales found in natural history museums in Europe and the United States. Their study found that the two groups, the Atlantic and Pacific gray whales, likely mixed several times in the last 100,000 years, perhaps due to shifts in ice pathways in the far north and changes in sea level.

map with highlighted areas.

This map of the geographical range of the gray whale was produced by NOAA Fisheries. It was updated in April 2023, less than a year before the sighting, and does not show any presence of gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean. Courtesy NOAA Fisheries.

So what happened to the Atlantic gray whale?

Whaling seems the most likely culprit. Like the now-critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), gray whales are slow swimmers, slow enough that they can be harpooned from boats under oar or sail power. Gray whales are also the most coastal of the large whales, thus perhaps the most vulnerable as targets of whalers. In the 1800s, whaling in the North Pacific had a severe impact on the gray whale population, although their numbers have since recovered, at least on the eastern side of the Pacific along their annual track from California up to British Columbia and Alaska and back.

But if whaling was the reason for the extirpation of gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean, it would have had to occur quite a long time ago and with very limited whaling technology. Few gray-whale bones have been found in Indigenous or colonial refuse piles or archaeological sites. Historians would also expect to find records in ship and market accounts, but there are very few written records from anywhere around the North Atlantic that document the hunting—or even the presence—of gray whales in those waters. One of the few historical accounts of the gray whale in the Atlantic is from Iceland around 1640, in which the “sandloegja,” its Icelandic name, made “good eating.”

Two of the other rare early accounts are from near where the gray whale was spotted this past spring. Historically, gray whales were perhaps known as the “scrag” whale. The story goes that in 1668, an animal identified as a “scragg” whale swam into Nantucket Harbor for 3 days, perhaps becoming trapped there, until the locals decided to harpoon the animal. “This first success encouraged [the Nantucketers] to undertake whaling as a permanent business,” wrote local historian Obed Macy.


The second mention of likely Atlantic gray whales seen near Nantucket is from 1725. Paul Dudley, who would go on to hold a position on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, wrote a natural history article about whales in New England, in which he described “the Scrag Whale.” This whale was “near a kind to the Fin-back, but, instead of a Fin upon his Back, the Ridge of the Afterpart of his Back is scragged with half a Dozen Knobs or Nuckles; he is nearest the right Whale in Figure and for Quantity of Oil; his Bone [baleen] is white, but won’t split.” Dudley’s description matches that of the gray whale, especially with its white or yellowish baleen and the knobby knuckles on the tail stock.

whale open mouth to fee on zooplankton

Gray whales take giant gulps of water to feed, using their baleen to filter zooplankton (tiny fish and organisms in the ocean such as krill, crustaceans, and copepods). You can see this whale’s baleen plates in the roof of its gaping mouth. By Doug Perrine/Alamy Stock Photo.

Biologists and historians propose that if early whale hunting by humans was not the only reason for the eradication of the Atlantic gray whales, other factors might have been a change in its food source or disease, brought on by climate shifts or some other variable. With the rapid climate change we are experiencing in the 21st century, it’s likely we’ll continue to see more gray whales back in the Atlantic in the decades to come. If we knew what killed them off in the Atlantic centuries ago, we might be better able to help them when they return.

Check out our previous Animals in “Sea History” or the book Ocean Bestiary: Meeting Marine Life from Abalone to Orca to Zooplankton, which is a revised collection of over 18 years of this column!

Did You Know?

Einstein On Sailboat Billard Smoke Pipe

Albert Einstein loved to sail and he sailed his whole life.

Renowned as one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of all time, by most accounts Einstein was also a terrible sailor! Making a boat go in a particular direction is a very interesting bit of science, so you wouldn’t think he would have had any trouble with it—but you’d be wrong.

What’s the secret to sailing any place you want to go, no matter which way the wind is blowing?

Read more at Albert Einstein, Sailor