Great white sharks and now killer whales? Pod of orcas spotted in rare sighting off Mass.

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NANTUCKET, Mass. — In a rare sighting, a pod of four killer whales was spotted swimming together in the waters off Massachusetts as a research team flew aerial surveys over the weekend, scientists announced Tuesday.

The killer whales, also known as orcas, were seen about 40 miles south of Nantucket on Sunday, according to the New England Aquarium.

Orla O’Brien, an associate research scientist who leads the aerial survey team for the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said it is “always unusual to see killer whales in New England waters.”

“Initially I could just see two splashes ahead of the plane,” added Katherine McKenna, an assistant research scientist who first spotted the whales. “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 orcas were among nearly 150 whales and dolphins that the team spotted during the seven-hour flight, including 23 fin whales counting a mother and calf, five minke whales, 62 bottlenose dolphins, and 20 humpback whales bubble feeding, according to the Aquarium.

“Seeing them swim in formation was just unreal,” O’Brien said. “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,” O’Brien said, adding the species’ population is very small in western North Atlantic waters.

The only killer whale seen regularly in North Atlantic waters is “Old Thom,” a large male orca who is known to swim alone, sometimes alongside dolphins, in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, the Aquarium noted. He was last spotted off Cape Cod in May 2022.

For more than a decade, the New England Aquarium has conducted aerial surveys over the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, collecting data on all marine animals with a focus on protected species of whales and sea turtles.

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