An unprecedented event occurred in Israel over the weekend. On Saturday May 8, 2010 a whale was spotted a mile and a half off Herzliya Marina. A team from the Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Centre (IMMRAC) were called to investigate. They were able to follow the whale, which was approximately 13m in length, southward along the coast for two hours. While being tracked, the whale was observed making a series of short dives, 3-5 minutes in duration, occasionally displaying its flukes. Initially its size, coloration and dorsal hump lead to it being identified as a sperm whale. However, closer inspection of the photographs showed a lot of head in front of an elevated blowhole, unwrinkled flukes and white-patched skin leading to the conclusion that it could only be a grey whale, Eschrichtius robustus.
Sea Watch Monitoring Officer Daphna Feingold, a former researcher for IMMRAC, has spoken with colleagues in Israel who have confirmed continued sightings in the area by members of the public and local fishermen.
The grey whale currently comprises of two distinct populations: the Eastern North Pacific and the Western North Pacific. Once found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, gray whales became extinct in the Northern Atlantic sometime in the 17th-18th Century and no sightings of the Grey whale have been made in the Atlantic Ocean since. Whilst the world population of grey whales is estimated at 26,500, the Western North Pacific stock holds IUCN critically endangered status with numbers estimated at 130 individuals, with only 25-30 reproductive females. Almost all the population of Western Pacific Greys has been satellite tagged, so an absence of tag suggests it is likely to member of the Eastern Pacific population.
Part of the Mysticeti sub-order, the grey whale is a bottom feeder, its primary prey being benthic amphipods. Whalers once called the grey whale the ‘devil fish’ because of its ferocity but today they are known for their inquisitive approach to boats.
The grey whale makes one of the longest annual migrations of any mammal, travelling up to 5000 miles from its northern summer feeding grounds in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to its winter breeding grounds off the coast of Baja.
For a whale to have ended up in the Eastern Mediterranean it must have travelled thousands of miles from its natural habitat. SWF Director, Dr Peter Evans suggests that the animal may have come into the North Atlantic via the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean which with global warming has become navigable now. It must have then entered the Mediterranean via the straits of Gilbraltar. Strangely the animal has not been spotted until now that it has reached the Eastern Mediterranean. There are fears that this animal will be unable to survive here as there are few food resources.