There are no gray whales in the Mediterranean.
There are, in fact, no gray whales in the Atlantic – have not been, for that matter, since the eighteenth century, when the species was possibly exterminated from the hemisphere by commercial whalers.
Today, gray whales exist in two populations, both in the Pacific: a critically endangered western Pacific population believed to number fewer than 200 individuals, and an eastern Pacific population of approximately 20,000. Members of the latter breed in the lagoons of Baja California; swim north along the coasts of Mexico, the United States and Canada to feed in the Arctic waters north of Alaska and northeastern Siberia; and then return south.
None of them swim within half a planet of the Holy Land.
"There is no doubt that this is a gray whale, and as such the sighting is little short of astonishing," said Phillip Clapham of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an e-mail. "There are really only two explanations: that there has been a relict population in the N Atlantic that no one has noticed (virtually impossible), or (more likely) that this whale came down through the ice-free Northwest Passage and is now hopelessly lost."
Added Dr. Aviad Scheinin of IMMRAC:
Due to the climate changes and the melting of the ice in the Northwest Passage especially during the years 2007-8, a corridor could have been created in the summer, enabling the whale to travel through it to the North Atlantic. In autumn, it may have started to migrate southward as it would do in the Pacific, maintaining the European continental shelf on the left, in a similar manner to the eastern Pacific migration. Instead of turning left to the Gulf of California it may have turned left into the Mediterranean Sea through Gibraltar Straits and all the way to the Eastern Mediterranean.
In other words, a summering gray whale north of Alaska, swimming eastward along the Alaska coast, may have been able to take advantage of ice-free conditions to continue swimming eastward, all the way through the Canadian Archipelago and west of Greenland (or, perhaps more likely, westward, above Russia and Europe, via the Northeast Passage) until instinct instructed it to turn south and ultimately hang a left.
With the Northwest Passage predicted to open up with greater frequency in future years as a result of warming temperatures, says Clapham, "I doubt that this whale will be the last."
Unfortunately, said Scheinin, there are no funds to enable the wayward whale to be tagged and followed by satellite (although a biopsy dart to gather DNA and confirm its provenance may be possible). The lengthy journey appears to have exacted a toll, and its emaciated condition suggests that the possibility of it successfully undergoing a return voyage to the Pacific is, in Scheinin's words, "rather slim."
For now at least, the whale is very far from home and very much alone.
Images: Dr. Aviad Scheinin