Our colleagues from IMMRAC (Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center) sent us unbelievable news. A gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) appeared off the Mediterranean coast of Israel on 8th May 2010! Such sighting is even more incredible than the sighting of the humpback whale in Slovenian waters last year. Gray whale is considered extinct in the Atlantic and can only be found in the North Pacific. The gray whale has not been recorded in the North Atlantic for 300 years, let alone in the Mediterranean.
Apart from the extinct North Atlantic population, there are two other known populations of gray whales in the world. Ena can be found in the western North Pacific and is considered critically endangered. The other lives in the eastern North Pacific. The latter was reduced to very small numbers in the past, but is now thought to have recovered.
It is not clear where this particular whale came from. It is unlikely (but maybe not impossible) that it is part of the remnant North Atlantic population that went unnoticed. Another, more likely explanation is that the whale came from the Pacific.
But which route did it take? The whale probably did not swim through the Panama or Suez canals (although several dolphin species have been sighted in the Suez canal and many animals species migrate into the Mediterranean through it), which probably means it had to take the longer way. If this is true, then this whale had to beat the record of the longest migration of any mammal (which is a record set by whales in any case). Some assume that the whale swam through the Northwest Passage, which connects the North Pacific with the North Atlantic, through the Arctic. The Northwest Passage is the shortest maritime way between Europe and Asia. Since 1978, when regular observations began, the Northwest Passage was completely ice-free for the first time in 2009.
More information on gray whales can be found at:
Photo: Aviad Scheinin / IMMRAC