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Rare sighting of killer whales caught in aerial survey off New England coast

<i>New England Aquarium</i><br/>Katherine McKenna
New England Aquarium
Katherine McKenna

By Amaya McDonald, CNN

(CNN) — New England Aquarium researchers spotted something unusual on Sunday afternoon during an aerial survey — a group of four killer whales swimming just 40 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Killer whales, also known as orcas, are more commonly seen in areas surrounding the Arctic ice-edge and the Caribbean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The last sighting of an orca in Massachusetts waters was in May 2022.

Katherine McKenna, assistant research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, was the first to notice the group, or pod.

“Initially I could just see two splashes ahead of the plane,” McKenna said in a news release. “As we circled the area, two whales surfaced too quickly to tell what they were. On the third surfacing, we got a nice look and could see the tell-tale coloration before the large dorsal fins broke the surface.”

Scientists at the aquarium use routine aeriel surveys to monitor shifts in marine animal populations and look for trends.

Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist who leads the aerial survey team for the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, noted in the release that the team’s observation felt “particularly special” because the orca population in western North Atlantic waters is very small. During Sunday’s survey, the researchers confirmed that the pod they saw included one adult male, one adult female and two juveniles.

Another atypical killer whale sighting — involving particularly large numbers — also occurred last weekend in coastal waters on the other side of the United States, in California’s Monterey Bay.

A pod of about 30 killer whales spotted there on Sunday was made up of 11 families, including six orcas from Canada, according to Nancy Black, a marine biologist at Monterey Bay Whale Watch and director of the nonprofit California Killer Whale Project.

The whales gather to socialize and establish relationships with other families to hunt more effectively, Black said.

“That was the best sighting I’ve seen in my 35 years of killer whale research,” Black told CNN. “Just extraordinary.”

There was no clear explanation for why there were so many sightings on Sunday, according to Black, who mentioned there have been more sightings in Monterey Bay in the past couple weeks.

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