Humpback whales have been returning in record numbers to the waters around New York City over the past year, according to groups that study the endangered marine mammals.
Public whale watching trips, organized by Gotham Whale and American Princess Cruises, recorded 87 humpback sightings in 2014. An increase from just 33 sightings in 2013.
“The most exciting part about this is that there are whales within sight of the New York City skyline,” says Gotham Whale founder Paul Sieswerda.
Gotham Whale began to document humpbacks in late 2010 after sailors began spotting whales around New York.
“At first, they just weren’t around,” Sieswerda said after Gotham Whale reported only three humpback sightings in 2011.
“But they’ve been increasing their numbers exponentially,” he added. There were 15 sightings in 2012, 33 in 2013 and 87 humpback sightings in 2014.
With the help of volunteers, Gotham Whale keeps track of the humpbacks by comparing the distinctive markings on the underside of their tails, called flukes, in their “New York City Humpback Whale Catalog.”
Sieswerda attributes the return of our favorite 40-ton underwater vocalists to cleaner water around the city and a growing abundance of menhaden, a favorite prey fish of humpbacks.
Sometimes referred to as “bunker” by fishermen, menhaden can be from eight to 10 inches long and usually swim in tight masses, making them an easy target for hungry humpbacks that are able to swallow hundreds of pounds of the fish in a single gulp. “They’re going where the fish are,” Sieswerda said.
According to Sieswerda, the efforts to clean up the city’s waterways have aided the return of humpbacks to New York waters. “The Clean Water Act and the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency are coming to fruition. Cleaner water leads to more wildlife,” he says.
Because the humpbacks typically stay south of the Verrazano Bridge in the New York Bight, the area where the Atlantic Ocean meets the city’s harbor, there is the possibility of their presence interfering with the busy shipping lanes of the New York harbor.
“The whales are actively feeding in shipping lanes. Interaction is inevitable,” Sieswerda said.
Despite the rise in sightings, Sieswerda thinks that most New Yorkers are unaware of the humpbacks’ presence in the waters around New York. “Not many people know that whales feed just south of the Verrazano Bridge,” he noted.” It takes a long time for people to recognize that.”