Scrag Whale

Mystery CETACEAN of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Etymology: Scrag, meaning lean or bony, was a term applied to whales that were hungry, dying, or lingering around the coast.

Scientific name: Balaena gibbosa, given by Johann Polycarp Erxleben in 1777.

Physical description: Similar to a Fin whale (Balaeonoptera physalus) but with knobs on its back instead of a dorsal fin.

Distribution: North Atlantic Ocean.

Significant sighting: According to legend, the first whale the white settlers of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, encountered was a Scrag whale that lingered in the harbor for three days in the 1670s. The settlers knew they had to try to capture it, but to accomplish this, a blacksmith had to fashion the island's first harpoon. Possible explanations:

(1) At one time, it was thought to be a juvenile Northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).

(2) Now universally considered to have been a North Atlantic population of the Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), hunted to extinction by the eighteenth century. A subfossil jaw discovered in 1977 at Southampton, New York, was identified in 1984 as a gray whale radiocarbon-dated to approximately 1710. This species is currently found only in the Pacific. Sources: Paul Dudley, "An Essay upon the

Natural History of Whales," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 33 (1725): 256-269; Obed Macy, The History of Nantucket (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1835); A. B. van Deinse and G. C. A. Junge, "Recent and Older Finds of the California Gray Whale in the Atlantic," Temminckia 2 (1937): 161-187; James G. Mead and Edward D. Mitchell, "Atlantic Gray Whales," in Mary Lou Jones, Steven L. Swartz, and Stephen Leatherwood, eds., The Gray Whale: Eschrichtius robustus (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984), pp. 33-53.

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