by Theresa Machemer/Smithsonianmag.com
ray whales spend their summers in the chilly waters of the northern Pacific and their winters along the coasts of California and Mexico. So researchers were surprised to hear reports of a lone gray whale spotted in the southeastern Atlantic off the coast of Namibia.
The whale had traveled halfway around the world, and likely set a new record for the longest in-water migration, Heather Richardson reports for National Geographic. Now, new research published in Biology Letters presents a genetic analysis of the whale that suggests it originated from a very small population of gray whales in the western Pacific.
When University of Stellenbosch zoologist Simon Elwen first heard of the sightings of the whale in 2013, “I was a bit dismissive,” he tells National Geographic. “It’s like someone saying they saw a polar bear in Paris—technically it could get there, but it just doesn’t seem very realistic.”
But photographs confirmed the sighting: the 40-foot-long male gray whale spent about two months in Namibia’s Walvis Bay. During that time, Elwen and Tess Gridley, also a zoologist at the University of Stellenbosch, gathered minimally invasive DNA samples from the wayward whale.