A gray whale's appearance last weekend off the coast of Israel has left scientists blubbering.
"We were shocked," said Oz Goffman, an expert in marine biology and animal behavior with the Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center at Haifa University. "They are not animals that we are supposed to see in our area."
Video showed the adult mammal swimming leisurely in waters that have not seen such a display since the 1700s or 1800s, experts said.
The lone animal appears to have migrated across the Pacific and into the Mediterranean, said Goffman, who observed the animal for three hours as it swam about 1.5 miles nautical miles from the shore.
"We followed the whale," he said. "It was swimming very relaxed, diving."
Asked if the sighting could portend a gray whale return to the area, which was picked clean of the mammal by whalers more than 200 years ago, he said, "It's possible."
"It's really strange," said Nancy Black, a marine biologist with the Monterey Bay Whale Watch in California who used Google Earth to try to figure out how it reached the shores off Israel. "Once in a while, animals get lost and get off their normal track."
She said the sighting could be related to changing climatic conditions along the Northwest Passage, the Arctic sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans that is usually covered with ice. "Now, the passage seems to be open more often," she said.
Based on the photos and videos, the mammal is about 20 tons, though they can grow to 45 feet and 45 tons, she said.
Nearly all of the world's 20,000 gray whales live in the northeastern Pacific and usually migrate south to Mexico in the fall and then back north in the summer, she said. About 100 of them live in the western Pacific.
Instead of migrating south, as most of the whales do, this one appears to have gone from the Bering Sea through the Northwest Passage, she said.
The animals tend to gorge in the summer on amphipods, crustaceans about 1/4-inch long that live in the mud, then fast the rest of the year, she said. But, she said, "they can also be opportunistic," feeding on krill too.
The animals also tend to be social, gathering together to mate and socialize in Mexico in the winter. "He's gonna be lonely," she said. She added that she could not discern the animal's gender from the images.