Massachusetts may be known for its whaling history, but orcas aren’t typically among the giant mammals spotted off its coast. The population of killer whales in the northwest Atlantic just isn’t big enough to expect to see one—let alone two or three. So when a pair of researchers spotted four killer whales swimming recently, on the same day a fisherman spotted one off the coast of Provincetown, it was extraordinary.
“This kind of sighting generates a lot of attention because killer whales are very charismatic, striking and beautiful,” Orla O’Brien, a research scientist from the New England Aquarium in Boston, told the New York Times. She and fellow researcher Katherine McKenna had spent seven hours flying over the ocean when they spotted splashing south of the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. When they got closer, they were shocked to see four orcas swimming together.
McKenna was the first one to spot the whales. The pair was conducting a regular aerial survey of marine life, which the aquarium has done for more than a decade to collect data and keep an eye on protected whale and sea turtle species. Aside from the orcas, the pair also spotted 23 fin whales, five minke whales, 62 bottlenose dolphins, and 20 humpback whales.
Earlier that day, a crew on a small fishing boat saw another killer whale, identified as “Old Thom,” swimming near Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. Chris Simon, who was aboard the boat, posted photos and video of the whale. Old Thom usually swims alone or with dolphins in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, according to the New England Aquarium, and is the only killer whale regularly spotted in the area. But even he isn’t quite so frequent a visitor—the last time he was spotted in Massachusetts was in May 2022.
One possible reason for the orca sightings is a rebound in the populations of seals and sharks, the Times noted, citing a thesis published by Rachel Bratton in 2022 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Seals and sharks are some of orcas’ favorite snacks.
Whatever the reason, it was certainly an incredible sight to behold.
“Seeing them swim in formation was just unreal,” O’Brien said in a press release issued by the New England Aquarium. The pod included one adult male, one adult female, and two younger whales. “I think seeing killer whales is particularly special for us because it unlocks that childhood part of you that wanted to be a marine biologist.”