BOSTON - New England Aquarium (NEAQ) scientists witnessed a rare sight south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on Sunday when they spotted four killer whales, or orcas, swimming together as the researchers conducted aerial surveys.
Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist who leads the aerial survey team for the NEAQ’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said the orca population in the North Atlantic waters is very small, and it "is always unusual to see killer whales in New England waters."
Assistant research scientist Katherine McKenna was the first of the team to spot the whales.
Killer whales, or orcas, are seen swimming in the water south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. (New England Aquarium)
"Initially, I could just see two splashes ahead of the plane," she said in a statement. "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."
Bottlenose dolphins are seen swimming in the water south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. (New England Aquarium)
The four orcas were among the nearly 150 whales and dolphins the team saw during the seven-hour flight.
"Seeing them swim in formation was unreal," O’Brien added. "We believe the sighting to be two males and two females, but that hasn’t been confirmed."
A fin whale and her calf in the waters south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. (New England Aquarium)
She added that seeing the killer whales was special for her because it unlocked feelings she had as a child when she decided she wanted to become a marine biologist.
A photo showing humpback whales in the waters south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. (New England Aquarium)
The NEAQ said the only killer whale regularly seen in the North Atlantic Ocean is "Old Thom." He’s a large orca known to swim alone, although he has sometimes been seen swimming with dolphins in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy.
The NEAQ added that Old Thom was last seen in the Massachusetts waters in May 2022 off Cape Cod.