Research scientists with the New England Aquarium made a rare find during an aerial survey over the weekend – killer whales in southern New England waters.

The whales, also known as orcas, were spotted as researchers scanned the ocean surface during surveys conducted some 40 miles south of Nantucket on Sunday.

“Initially I could just see two splashes ahead of the plane,” assistant research scientist Katherine McKenna 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.”

Given the species’ small population in the western North Atlantic, associate research scientist Orla O’Brien said it is “always unusual to see killer whales in New England waters.” 

“Seeing them swim in formation was just unreal,” said O’Brien, who leads the aerial survey team. “We believe the sighting to be two males and two females, but that hasn’t been confirmed. 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.”

Also spotted during Sunday’s survey were nearly 150 other whales and dolphins, including:

  • 23 Fin whales (counting a mother and calf)
  • 5 Minke whales
  • 20 Humpback whales “bubble feeding”
  • 62 Bottlenose dolphins

The aquarium said the aerial surveys south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have been collecting data on marine animals “with a focus on protected species of whales and sea turtles” for more than a decade.

Funded by a number of organizations that include the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, NOAA, wind energy developers, and private foundations, the flights ” help monitor changes in animal populations, identify various animal species, and recognize trends using standardized data that has been collected over many years,” according to a news release from the NEA.

“Determining where right whales occur and how they are using habitats provides crucial information that can be used to better protect the critically endangered species,” the release stated.

The sighting of whales south of Nantucket came within days of another sighting over the weekend. Near Provincetown, the crew of a fishing boat based in Bourne had their own orca sighting on Sunday.

“There were a lot of dolphins, a lot of humpback whales and then we saw this one orca whale,” said Pat Simon of Simon Sez Sportfishing.

“Everybody was amazed,” Simon said. 

Experts told 7NEWS the fishermen spotted “Old Thom,” the only killer whale who has been regularly sighted off New England and Nova Scotia. A bit of a loner, experts said “Old Thom” is known to seemingly never swim with other orcas, though he has been seen swimming with dolphins.

This weekend, Simon Sez Sportfishing had gone out looking to catch some tuna. Instead, they found Thom. 

“Not the target species and no tuna, no sushi and no paycheck coming home, but that was definitely a consolation prize,” Simon said.

Orcas, on average, are 20 to 25 feet long, though they can get as big as 30 feet.

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