NEW YORK (AP) --
Maybe they want to sing on Broadway.
Humpback whales, the
gigantic, endangered mammals known for their haunting underwater songs, have
been approaching New York City in greater numbers than even old salts can
whale-watching boats have seen humpbacks in the Atlantic Ocean within a mile
of the Rockaway peninsula, part of New York's borough of Queens, within sight
of Manhattan's skyscrapers.
"It is truly
remarkable, within miles of the Empire State Building, to have one of the
largest and most charismatic species ever to be on this planet," said
Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Ocean Giants program at the Wildlife
spotted 87 times from the boats this year, and by cataloging the whales'
markings, at least 19 different humpbacks have been identified in the waters
off the city.
founder of Gotham Whale, which documents the marine mammal population around New York, said
reports of humpbacks in the New York Bight, where the city's harbor meets the
Atlantic, began to pick up around 2010 from surprised fishermen and other
veterans on the water. Gotham Whale then partnered with the American Princess
whale-watching boat, providing naturalists who could document the sightings.
The naturalists also
do an educational presentation on the boat and answer customers' questions,
said Tom Paladino, the boat's captain.
"It was pretty
slim pickings at first, actually," Sieswerda said. "We went on many
cruises and had three sightings totaling five whales in 2011."
But in 2012, there
were 15 sightings; in 2013, 33; and this year there were 87 sightings
totaling 106 humpbacks.
Many whales were sighted
more than once. But by comparing flukes - the distinctive shapes and markings
of their tails - 19 different humpbacks have been documented near the city so
far. Customers on the whale-watching tours are asked to share anyphotos they get of such markings for the "New York City
Humpback Whale Catalog."
"This is the
way they've been doing it in Maine and Massachusetts, the recognized way to
keep track of these whales, study their behavior," Sieswerda said.
crystal clear why humpbacks, which can be 50 feet long and weigh 40
tons, are returning to New York's shores, where they were abundant before
they and other whale species were nearly destroyed by whaling.
Rosenbaum said the
humpbacks' reappearance could be simply a shift in their habits rather than a
spike in population. A greater abundance of menhaden, one of the humpbacks'
favorite foods, could have attracted them from farther out in the ocean.
That might be
because the water is cleaner.
"One would like
to think that some of this has been triggered by an improved environmental
ethic," Rosenbaum said. "We have the clean air and clean water
acts, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and associated state laws. It's hard
to make the link for sure but there's certainly been a behavioral change
toward the natural environment."
that various factors are in play but said, "I think it all begins with cleaner
water," including the improved Hudson River.
Whatever the cause,
humpback populations worldwide are increasing. Counting whales is difficult,
but the International Whaling Commission says its latest estimates put the
worldwide population at about 150,000. About 11,600 of those are in the
Western North Atlantic, which includes the New York Bight off New York City.
There might have been just hundreds before whale protection laws were passed.
shouldn't expect to see humpbacks frolicking around the Statue of Liberty.
Except for the occasional disoriented calf, the whales generally stay well
outside the harbor, beyond the "gate" formed by the Rockaway
peninsula in New York and Sandy Hook in New Jersey.
that more whales could mean problems in the busy shipping lanes out of New
York. And he hopes they'll be taken into consideration when offshore
wind-power projects are suggested.
But he says,
"Having them here is truly remarkable and encouraging. I think it will
help people in New York embrace the natural world and the marine environment
and these iconic species."
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