Field of Science


A Tale of Two Whales

Here's something that caught my attention in the news yesterday. A lone gray whale was spotted wandering around in the Mediterranean--the first of its kind to be seen in the Atlantic Ocean in at least two centuries.

There used to be gray whales in the Atlantic as well as the Pacific, but when their population shrank in the 1700s, only the Pacific ones remained. Scientists think that the best explanation for this stray whale is that it navigated the Northwest Passage: that is, it swam from its Pacific home north into the Arctic Ocean and all the way across Canada, finally ending up in the Mediterranean. An expert speculates that the cetacean "is now wondering where the hell it is." (This is the same Northwest Passage that had decorated British explorers eating their boots back in the 19th century. These days, it's much easier to get through the ice, thanks to you-know-what.)

Gray whales are known for migrating enormous distances; they travel about 5,000 miles south at the start of every winter. Even so, this guy would have had to set some kind of distance record. The other, even less plausible possibility is that a population of gray whales has been in the Atlantic all along, remaining totally hidden. If you're interested, here's a BBC article where they note that gray whale is "also spelt grey."

The whale in the picture is, of course, not a gray or grey whale. It's a sky-blue, plush Dr. Seuss whale that I named Geisel (after Dr. Seuss's real name, Theodore Geisel). My grandparents, after reading an article I wrote for my magazine called "How to Mail a Whale," mailed it to me. For now, Geisel is living on top of my Webster's Unabridged. But I haven't ruled out the possibility that he's a migratory species.

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