Exceptional sighting of a gray whale in Italy

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Exceptional sighting of a gray whale in Italy
Stock image - Gray whale and calf in San Ignacio Lagoon

During the weekend of 17th April, a young gray whale was spotted in the Gulf of Naples, three days after another sighting in the waters off the island of Ponza.

The whale, estimated to be eight meters long, was seen off the coast of Pozzuoli on the evening of Saturday 17th April; experts believe this was the same animal seen at the port of Baia the next morning and the Pontine Islands during the previous week. This has been described as an “exceptional event” and is believed to be the first sighting of a gray whale in Italy, since the species became extinct in this area ~300 years ago!

The local coast guard has ordered all ships away from the area to avoid hindering the whale’s journey, whilst maritime authorities have dispatched boats to observe it. 

Gray whales are distinctive, large and robust, growing to a maximum of 15m in length and weighing around 45,000kg. They have a relatively small, narrow head and arched jawline. As their name suggests, they are grey in colour with a grey and white marbling pattern and yellow patches of whale lice and barnacles on the body. Younger animals are darker in colour with much less patterning and barnacles. There is no dorsal fin, but instead, a small triangular lump and a ridge of 7-12 bumps or knuckles along the dorsal edge. Gray whales travel alone or in groups of up to three individuals, except in breeding grounds. They are highly inquisitive, often approaching nearby boats and spy hopping, lob tailing and breaching. Ordinarily, gray whales are only seen in the north-eastern Pacific Ocean, between California and Alaska. They are a coastal species, found within 20km of shore waters, less than 100m in depth. However, between 2016 and 2020, the estimated population of this species plummeted from almost 27,000 to around 20,500 and it is unclear why. Early research suggests this decline is due to climate change and warming of the Arctic Ocean which may be reducing the quantity and quality of food supply.

Experts from the Punta Campanella Marine Protected Areas believe the animal seen during the weekend of the 17th April, could be the same gray whale that was sighted off the coast of Morocco in March and are emphasising how important it is to report any sighting of the whale, which they say, appears to be very undernourished and thin.

It is unclear why the whale is so far from home in the Mediterranean; this could be due to climate change and the melting of Arctic glaciers which has forced the animal to migrate so far. 

Populations of gray whales in Europe were wiped out before 500 AD and they became extinct in the North Atlantic in the 18th century.  It is thought that whaling contributed to the decline of the North Atlantic gray whale population and that they were hunted to extinction, this makes the sighting incredibly rare. However, this is not the first sighting since then, in 2010 a gray whale was spotted off the coasts of Israel and Spain, and in 2013 one off the coast of Namibia, it is thought these whales had migrated from the North Pacific population through the Arctic ocean.