Humpback whales are making a comeback and their destination of choice? New York City.
Whale-watchers report that humpbacks have been seen in the Atlantic Ocean, just a mile away from the Rockaway peninsula which is part of Queens, one of New York's boroughs. However, not only are the whales appearing more often in Manhattan, they're also coming in big numbers. With this year alone registering 87 sightings, at least 19 of which have been identified to be different humpback whales.
"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, Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants program director.
Gotham Whale founder Paul Sieswerda said that the number of humpback whales in the Bight, the point at which the Atlantic Ocean meets the New York City harbor, started picking up around 2010 as reported by fishermen and other enthusiasts on the water. Gotham Whale and whale-watching boat American Princess then partnered to provide naturalists with a means of transport, allowing for the sightings to be documented. At the same time, the naturalists also offer educational presentations for other passengers, answering any questions they might have about humpback whales.
Sieswerda shared that numbers were dismal at first, with just three sightings involving five whales recorded in 2011. In 2012 though, sightings totaled 15, more than doubling in 2013 at 33.
Thanks to the New York City Humpback Whale Catalog, which whale-watchers are encouraged to participate in by sharing photographs they have of flukes, or distinctive markings or shapes on a whale's tail, 19 humpbacks have been identified near the city's waters.
Humpback whales can grow up to lengths of 50 feet and weights of 40 tons. They have always been abundant in numbers but rapidly went away when whaling was introduced.
It's still not clear why humpback whales are back but Rosenbaum attributes it to a change in their habits instead of population growth. It is also possible that menhaden, a humpback favorite, may be more abundant closer to the waters of New York, which could be a result of cleaner waters.
"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," he said.
The International Whaling Commission estimates that around 150,000 humpback whales exist in the world, 11,600 of which are in the Western North Atlantic area which includes New York's Bight.