The New England Aquarium says they've spotted a gray whale off the coast of Nantucket, a species that hasn't lived in the Atlantic Ocean for more than 200 years.

While it’s a rare and exciting sighting, scientists note it’s likely the result of the changing climate.

Orla O'Brien, an associate research scientist at the aquarium, says they didn’t get a great look at the whale when they first saw it during an aerial survey on Friday. They assumed it was a right whale, but something seemed off.

“We didn't know for sure,” she said. “Was it a sick whale? Was it not a right whale? Because it was pretty pale and kind of had blotches all over its skin. But it didn't have a dorsal fin. And the only whale out here that doesn't have a dorsal fin is a right whale.”

They circled around to get a better look. And O’Brien couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

“On the one hand, we knew exactly what it was, but on the other hand, there was no way it could be that,” she said.

That's because gray whales disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean by the 18th century. They live in the Pacific.

It’s not the first time they’ve been seen beyond the Pacific. There have been sightings off the coast of Namibia and in the Mediterranean. And O’Brien said she believes this is the same whale that was spotted near Florida in December.

Still, it’s incredibly rare.

"The most likely thing to have happened is that, while it was feeding in the summertime up by Alaska or the Arctic that the whale swam through the Northwest Passage, taking advantage of an area that hasn't seen as much ice cover recently due to warming temperatures."

Gray whales are adaptable in what they eat, and this one appeared to be doing OK in the unfamiliar Atlantic waters, she said.

A gray whale's tail is shown out of the water on a clear day.
A gray whale spotted off Nantucket on Friday, March 1, 2024.
New England Aquarium Courtesy of the New England Aquarium