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Whales and the City

Humpback whale sightings increasingly common in waters off New York, and throughout the mid-Atlantic.

During the spring, summer and fall, North Atlantic humpback whales are commonly found off the coast of New England feeding in the Gulf of Maine (GoM). In the past few years though, evidence for the regular seasonal occurrence of humpbacks off New York City and throughout the mid-Atlantic waters (the waters off Virginia, New Jersey, and New York) has been growing.

This year, WDC began working with the American Princess, a whale watch company out of Queens, NYC through our Whale SENSE program and Dr. Artie Kopelman of CRESLI, a New York based research and education organization.  Sightings for the American Princess have been so successful that they have extended their season.  You know that when whale watching companies are adding extra trips in an area previously unknown for supporting populations of feeding whales, that something interesting is happening.

In the past few weeks, I have been going through recorded humpback whale sightings posted by both whale watching companies and naturalists on online sites such as Flickr. My main job has been collating these sightings into one database so that WDC can better understand potential patterns in the appearance of these whales. Many of the humpbacks seen off Montauk, NY and in the Great South Channel (east of Cape Cod) are individuals we recognize from the GoM feeding grounds. However, there are a number of whales that are not in our catalogue and may be coming down from Canada for a bite to eat.  Unlike the Gulf of Maine, the whale sightings in the mid-Atlantic are year round, leading us to believe that the area is much more important for humpback whales than previously believed.

Why does this matter?
Well, because mid-Atlantic waters are not generally thought of as an important feeding habitat for endangered humpback whales, there are few existing protections for this species in the area. The mid-Atlantic and especially waters off New York are busy areas for shipping and fishing.  Less than two weeks ago, a humpback whale was found dead off NY from an apparent entanglement in fishing gear.  This past spring, Istar a well-known GoM humpback died off NY and while the results of her necropsy are still pending, a ship strike cannot be ruled out as the cause of her death. In order to protect the whales utilizing these waters, we have to better understand when and where exactly these whales are there. The use of opportunistic data collected from whale watching boats may prove to be an effective way to begin to understand these whales’ habitat use.

What are my next steps?
I’m currently going through these mid-Atlantic sightings and creating a catalogue of the individuals seen, including information about where and when in New York waters each whale was seen. I can then compare this catalogue to whale sighting records and catalogues for Virginia, New Jersey, and the GoM. This will help WDC better understand when and why whales may be more noticeably using this area. It will also aid in our argument for increased whale protections in these areas.