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Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

RICHARD FREEMAN: Return of the Grey Whale to the Atlantic

The only extant populations of Grey Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are in the North Pacific, where there are two geographically separated groups. One population occurs along the east Pacific coast from Baja California to the Bering and Chukchi seas, the other occurs in the west Pacific from South Korea to the Okhotsk Sea.

However there was once a third population that lived in the Atlantic. It was found around the coast of Europe, Iceland and the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada. There are historical accounts of living grey whales from Iceland in the early 1600s, and possibly off New England in the early 1700s. It seems that the Atlantic grey whales were wiped out before the start of large-scale industrial whaling, suggesting that grey whales as a species are susceptible to coastal community-based whaling.

Sub-fossil remains, the most recent dated at around 1675 A.D., have been found on the eastern seaboard of North America from Florida to New Jersey, and on the coasts of the English Channel and the North and Baltic seas.

It was the Atlantic population that was described to science first. In 1861, Wilhelm Lilljeborg identified a sub-fossil, naming it Balaenoptera robusta. In the same decade, John Gray of the British Museum noted the differences between this species and the rorqual whales (Family Balaenopteridae), and so placed it in a new genus, Eschrichtius, after the zoologist Daniel Eschricht.

Sub fossil remains were collected from the coasts of England and Sweden. A sub fossil skeleton at Gräsö (Roslagen, Upsala, Sweden) was the type specimen of Lilljeborg's Balaenoptera robusta.

The grey whale was thought to be totally extinct until 1911 when the paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews rediscovered a colony of the cost of Korea. On July 22nd 1916 a Dutch sailor who only identified himself as ‘PW’ saw an odd creature 400 miles to the north of Suriname in latitude 10deg 54’ N and a longitude of 56deg 27’W. It was estimated to be 70-80 feet long and had odd protuberances on the head. The animal did not have a dorsal fin. His sketch off the beast gave a whale like outline. Grey whales will often have collections of barnacles attached to the head. These might have been the protuberances ‘PW’ saw. The grey whale is also he only one of the great whales to lack a dorsal fin.

Dr Bernard Heuvelmans though that this may have indeed been a grey whale and that the species may have lingered longer in the Atlantic than most people think. In fact the date of the grey whale’s extinction in the Atlantic is not known.

At the 19th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, held in July 2005 in Brazil, Dr Andrew Ramsey and Dr Owen Nevin, of the University of Central Lancashire's School of Natural Resources, proposed the idea that the grey whales could be reintroduced in the Irish Sea. They proposed airlifting 50 surplus grey whales from the east Pacific coast population for release off the coast of northern England, the Cumbrian coastline, starting in 2015. According to these scientists it's ecologically, logistically and economically feasible and whale watching could regenerate struggling fishing communities around these coasts. A Lake District survey revealed that 90% of people would be in favour of re-introducing the grey whale to Britain, so it seems that this idea has already the backing of the local people. However, the idea caused division between conservationists. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society criticized this idea heavily, labeling it "neither feasible nor sensible". The group has serious doubts as to whether the Pacific grey whales could even survive in the Atlantic.

But the scientists have hit back. "Some people will say it is impossible but we are deadly serious about this," Nevin said on the university's Web site.

"It's ecologically, logistically and economically feasible and whale watching could regenerate struggling fishing communities around our coasts," he added. Ramsey said cargo aircraft can easily accommodate adult Gray whales and the journey from California to Britain would take less than 12 hours. "Providing the whales are kept moist at all times they are more than capable of surviving the long haul flight," he said.

The whales would present no threat to the fishing industry because they feed on worms and amphipods that live in sediment and do not eat fish.

I don't currently know if this scheme is still going ahead. I can find no more information on it. I hope it come to fruition because having grey whales off the cost of Cumbria is an exciting prospect.


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