With hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day from the still-uncapped British Petroleum well, and with the airplane-grounding ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull having reached Morocco, you might think that Mother Nature is dying an ugly death around the globe. Sadly, you’re probably right.
There is some good news from the natural world, though, and being that I am always so upbeat and cheerful in my columns, I thought it would be nice to share that news with you: It seems the extinction of gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean has been greatly exaggerated after all.
Well, maybe not greatly exaggerated. Scientists know of only one gray whale in the whole Atlantic, but it’s still huge news. You see, the gray whale hasn’t been seen outside of the Pacific Ocean since some time way back in the 17th or 18th century. The Atlantic population of the majestic beasts was thought to have been extinct ever since. That is, until just last Sunday.
On May 9, a gray whale was spotted in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Herzliya Marina, Israel, half a world away from its usual haunts. Scientists — who likened the whale’s reappearance to the 1938 discovery off South Africa of the coelacanth, a fish thought to have disappeared around the same time as the dinosaurs — were baffled by the astonishing news.
“This discovery is truly amazing,” said Nicola Hodgins of England’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. “Its [the gray whale’s] presence off the coast of Israel will certainly pose a lot of questions to the scientific community.”
The main question the whale sighting raises — and the one that I’m sure is clearly paramount in everyone’s mind — is: Are scientists sure the whale isn’t really Elvis? Miss Hodgins didn’t provide that answer in her remarks, so it’s possible we’ll never know, but the National Enquirer is allegedly considering just such a story for its front page anyway.
Assuming the corpulent creature actually is a whale, however, we’re still stuck with a number of unresolved issues. Foremost in the minds of scientists is the question of how, exactly, the whale got to the Mediterranean to begin with. I’m guessing it probably swam, but El Al Airlines did mention it recently sold a seat to a large, suspicious-looking passenger named “Greg Whale” for a flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv.
A BBC News story on the whale says the animal “may have inadvertently traveled a huge distance from its natural habitat thousands of kilometers away in the Pacific Ocean,” but that seems ludicrous to me. Whales are pretty intelligent and not likely to accidentally swim that far off course. Besides, in all those kilometers, don’t you think at some point the whale would have turned around and realized that none of his fellow whales were following him?
One possibility that scientists have not yet raised but I think needs to be considered is that the whale may have swum to Israel on purpose, which of course begs the inevitable question: Do whales take vacations? I know I would if I was a whale, so maybe they do.
If indeed the whale was visiting Israel on vacation, that brings up a whole new question about animal spirituality, namely: Are all whales Jewish or just gray whales? (I think a good case could be made that bottle-nose dolphins might share a similar faith, but it’s hard to imagine the Ganges River dolphin as anything but Hindu.) Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts, scientists were unable to get the whale excited enough to check if it is circumcised and answer the question once and for all.
The most intriguing possibility, though, is that the whale might be part of a breeding population that is going to repopulate the Atlantic. This would be gargantuan news and a sign that perhaps Mother Nature’s situation is not as dire as many people once feared. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I know I’m hopeful this is what’s really going on.
In other whale-related news, Japan and Norway recently announced that they are sending their entire whaling fleets to the eastern Mediterranean. A spokesman for the Japanese whaling industry, speaking through a translator, had this to say: “As the reappearance of this gray whale shows, whales aren’t always easy to find. If we know where one is, we owe it to ourselves and the world to sail there and kill it for scientific porpoises.”