Somebody unexpected has been spotted in Walvis Bay, Namibia. First seen on May 4, a grey whale has been making the rounds, much to the surprise of visitors, cetacean experts and whale fans around the world. The sighting was verified by John Paterson and the Walvis Bay Strandings Network, a group that works locally with marine wildlife.
Given that grey whales have been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean since the 18th century, when they were hunted in vast numbers along with other large whale species, and that they’ve never been seen below the equator, this is scientifically important news. The question Paterson and other researchers desperately want to answer is where the whale came from, because the answer to that question could be an indicator of really good news for whales, or really bad news for both whales and the planet.
One potential answer is that whales could be reentering the Atlantic and reclaiming their old range. Sadly, they’re likely getting there through the Arctic, taking advantage of shrinking sea ice to make the journey. This means that climate change would be ultimately responsible for allowing the whales to get through. If whales are returning to the Atlantic, there’s still a ways to go before it could be counted a victory, as they would need to be present in large enough numbers to make a viable breeding colony.
There is some evidence to support this theory; a grey whale was spotted in the Mediterranean in 2010, suggesting that perhaps these animals are starting to make inroads into the Atlantic. If more and more of them are arriving from the Pacific, the whale takeover could mean an amazing recovery for these historically hunted animals, though researchers caution that the same paths whales use to get to the Atlantic from the Pacific could be a conduit for invasive Atlantic species to enter the Pacific.
However, the whale’s appearance and movements below the equator could also be a very bad sign. It’s possible that climate change is driving whales further afield in search of food, in which case more whales would show up in the Atlantic and below the equator, but it might not be anything to celebrate. The massive animals might be struggling to survive in an ocean that’s turning increasingly hostile to its residents.
In either case, this particular whale may be in trouble. Isolated whales, Paterson told The Namibian, often can’t survive on their own:
“If it finds food and does not have any predators (it will survive). But it is out of its habitat and is away from its fellow whales so it won’t reproduce. Very often animals that get lost or go completely the wrong direction, are doomed because they are completely out of their habitat. Unless they turn around and go back to where they should be. If there’s food it could survive, but considering the long term survival, it’s very difficult to say”
This particular visitor has been spotted multiple times over the last two weeks, which indicates it’s thinking about sticking around. It might try to forge a living for itself in its new territory, and it could be the first of many. The question is: will whales show up because they’re recovering from their dance with extinction, or because the clock is ticking on climate change and they’re running out of options?
Photo credit: Charlie Stinchcomb