A whale of a tale

Historic Mediterranean sighting makes waves across the globe.

gray whale 311 (photo credit: Aviad Scheinin/IMMRAC)
gray whale 311
(photo credit: Aviad Scheinin/IMMRAC)
A week after making whale-spotting history, Dr. Aviad Scheinin is still being bombarded with e-mail from all corners of the globe, the chairman of the Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center (IMMRAC) told The Jerusalem Post by phone Thursday.
Scheinin made history on Saturday when he spotted a gray whale in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel. Gray whales have been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for 300 years.
During a routine reconnaissance for dolphins, Scheinin received word of the whale sighting. He and his team caught up to it just north of Herzliya and followed it for several hours.
“Not having much experience with whales – we mostly get dolphins around here – I initially thought it was a sperm whale, even though the signs were not exactly right,” he recalled.
It was only when he got back home and took a closer look at the photographs under a magnifying glass that he realized, impossible as it seemed, that it had been a gray whale.
“It’s so totally unbelievable, it’s almost like an alien landing,” he said, the emotion and excitement still apparent in his voice a week later.
Scheinin sent a crew north along with Nature and Parks Authority officials on Thursday, but they did not catch sight of the whale again. He said he would probably head out Friday to comb the coast close to the beach in the Center of the country, since the whale hugs the coast in its travels.
“It’s very hard to spot the whale, and it can travel dozens of kilometers a day,” he said – so it’s a bit hit-or-miss.
If they do find the whale again, they will try and get a piece of skin for a DNA sample to try and figure out where the whale came from.
On Saturday, the whale wouldn’t let them get closer than 20 meters, so it was hard to identify it initially. However, after Scheinin e-mailed colleagues around the world, the tumult began.
“At first they were like, ‘Are you sure? That’s highly unlikely.’ But then when they saw the photographs, they were amazed and shocked,” Scheinin said.
One such, Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute of Oregon State University at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, expressed his sense of the historicity of the moment.
“I have worked with this species since 1979 and have expected this would occur, but I was not sure it would be within my lifetime,” he wrote in an e-mail to Scheinin provided to the Post.
European researchers expressed similar wonder at the rare sight.
“My goodness, this is truly incredible,” Dr. Alexandre Gannier, president of Groupe de Recherche sur les Cétacés, wrote to Scheinin.
One of the burning questions now is how the whale got to the Mediterranean. The current theory is that global warming had a hand in it. The receding polar ice caps in the Arctic may have opened up a channel between the Pacific and the Atlantic and the whale wandered off course, according to Scheinin.
“This could be a recolonization of the Atlantic or some other place,” he explained. “The whale was looking for food and wandered into the North Atlantic. Then he started making his way south, keeping the land to his left – just as if he was heading south along the California coast in the Pacific. At some point, he thought he would need to make a left turn into the Gulf of California, and so swam into the Mediterranean.”
The whale slipped past all of the well-funded European research centers, only to be discovered by IMMRAC, a volunteer organization with a shoestring budget, Scheinin noted wryly.
“It’s very hard to find grants and funds for this kind of research and promote the topic. We rely on local yacht clubs for boat donations [in addition to the organization’s Zodiac], and here the whale slipped by all of the European and Mediterranean research centers. Perhaps someone was looking out for us from above,” he mused half-seriously.
Scheinin said he hoped the media exposure would lead bathers and boaters to keep their eyes open for the whale and report any sightings.
Other types, such as minke, sperm and false killer whales have been spotted off the coast in the past. Tragically, in February 2008, an apparently injured fin whale sank and died off the coast of Ashkelon.
One of the international authorities on whales characterized the sighting as perhaps the most exciting since Aristotle.
"This is the most exciting cetacean (whale,dolphin and porpoise) sightings in my life time and probably the most interesting geographic record of a whale since Aristotle first reported observations on cetaceans from the Aegean Sea about 2,300 years ago. Historically gray whales were known from the North Atlantic Ocean but they have been extinct for hundreds of years. This sighting of a gray whale off the Israeli coast this month makes us wondering it these whales can reoccupy their former range," Robert L. Brownell, Jr., Senior Scientist for International Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries, National Marine Fisheries Service, in Pacific Grove, California communicated to the Post Thursday by email.