In a rare sighting, New England Aquarium scientists were pleasantly surprised to spot four killer whales swimming together 40 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts.
The research team had been flying overhead conducting aerial surveys when they made the discovery.
It is “always unusual to see killer whales in New England waters,” associate research scientist Orla O’Brien said in a press release. She leads the aerial survey team for the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
Assistant research scientist Katherine McKenna was first to spot the whales.
“Initially I could just see two splashes ahead of the plane,” McKenna said in a press 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.”
The killer whales were seen swimming in formation, an experience O’Brien called “unreal.” It is believed that the pod was made up of two males and two females, though that has not 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,” O’Brien said.
The population of killer whales, also known as orcas, is very small in North Atlantic waters.
The orcas were among nearly 150 whales and dolphins witnessed during the team’s seven-hour flight. This included 23 fin whales, counting a mother and calf, five minke whales, 62 bottlenose dolphins and 20 humpback whales bubble feeding, the New England Aquarium said.
There is only one known killer whale seen regularly in North Atlantic waters. Known as “Old Thom,” the large male orca typically swims alone — or sometimes alongside dolphins — in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. He was last seen in waters off Cape Cod in May 2022.