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The Joyous Homecoming for New York City’s Whales

Whales have returned to New York City’s coastline after a long absence

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Last November, a humpback whale swam up the Hudson River. The animal was spotted slapping its fin near the Upper West Side and then splashing below the Statue of Liberty’s effervescent mint skirt. I read every story I could about this cosmopolitan animal, worried that it would die like the poor Gowanus dolphin. One whale expert kept appearing as a source: Paul Sieswerda, a retired aquarium curator living on Staten Island, who had nicknamed the Hudson whale “Gotham,” and who assured reporters that it was likely not lost but hungry.

Another humpback was spotted in January, this time in the East River, near Gracie Mansion. Once again, Sieswerda was called on as New York’s resident whale guy, and once again he noted that the whale was likely feeding. I wanted to meet this man who was watching the whales return, and so this past April, I took a bumpy bus ride to the tip of the city to meet Sieswerda on a sand-swept dock in the Rockaways.

Sieswerda is the founder and ringleader of a small, all-volunteer nonprofit called Gotham Whales, which is creating a database of whales spotted around the New York City area. Gotham Whales does most of its field work from the cozy observation deck of the American Princess, a sightseeing boat that tours the New York and New Jersey coastlines scouting for marine life.

The American Princess often departs from Riis Landing. The pier is lively during sunny summer afternoons, but on the steel-gray spring day we met, it looked desolate and postapocalyptic, with hurricane damage visible on empty salt-soaked buildings and a lonely food truck parked near the barren bus stop. I boarded the boat as rain began to fall; besides Paul and me, the group consisted primarily of ardent birders with fancy, long-lens cameras, as well as a tall, wan man in his early 20s carrying a hardcover copy of Moby-Dick. The Marine Parkway Bridge loomed overhead, with cars driving below peregrine falcons, which perched on boxes set up by the MTA as part of a conservation program. To the side of the landing’s pier, fishermen in waders cast lines into the bay as we set off.

I stayed inside the cabin as we zipped past Breezy Point, the “Irish Riviera,” which was particularly battered by Hurricane Sandy, and which is still speckled with scaffolding from reconstruction projects. We blew past sand dunes dotted with nesting American oystercatchers, terns, and piping plovers. After about an hour, the captain hooked the boat around Swinburne Island, a small, man-made spot of land formerly used as a place to quarantine immigrants with yellow fever and cholera. Now the grim island is mostly forgotten rubble, relinquished with no fight to a colony of harbor seals sprawled out on the rocky jetty. As the seals wriggled companionably, Sieswerda told me about his project. He started Gotham Whale in 2011, as he’d heard that whales had returned to the area and wanted to make sure the arrival of these creatures was properly documented. A kind-eyed widower in his early 70s, with a stiff-hipped walk and a trace of Boston drawl, he is an ardent advocate for these animals.

While the excursion is primarily about looking for seals during the springtime and humpback whales during the summer, it occasionally spots other marine life. Gotham Whale has seen several right whales, a minke whale, and a fin whale. Porpoises are fairly common, and some keen-eyed visitors might see the enormous fins of thresher sharks or a rough-skinned Atlantic sturgeon leaping on a lucky day.

Sieswerda keeps a log of the seals during seal season and whales during whale season, entering in the longitude, latitude, and time in which each creature is spotted, and also recording behavior and any distinguishing characteristics. He also uses a Garmin GPS to keep a precise log of the boat’s whole route, to study the stretches of ocean most likely to be populous with other life. Although he has observed ocean life for decades, his sense of wonder remains. “It amazes me every time we go out that we can be so close to a big city and yet still have whales, dolphins, and seals,” Sieswerda said.

The Gotham Whale crew is small but true-blue committed, and nobody is more energetic than freelance photographer Artie Raslich, a burly, fast-talking East Rockaway native who started volunteering with the organization in 2013. He began photographing humpback whales in the Rockaway area in 2010, after he happened across a pair carousing near his boat during a weekend trip with his family and decided to devote all his free time to capturing their beauty. Over the past few years, Raslich has started to recognize more than a dozen specific whales, although he can identify more by comparing the photographs he takes of their bodies to pictures in Sieswerda’s database. Like the distinctive whorls of human fingerprints, individual whale fins are ridged and contoured with unique markings, so taking a picture of a fin and comparing it with that fin in the wild means you can make an ID. Only the most memorable individuals get nicknames. Raslich is responsible for the most famous photograph of an NYC whale yet, a humpback spy-hopping directly in front of the Empire State Building. Raslich calls him “Jerry,” after Jerry Garcia. “I love that whale,” he said.

The second time I went to visit the American Princess, the boat was crowded with couples clutching paper coffee cups, amateur nature photographers, and a passel of excitable children. The original plan was to cruise alongside the Brooklyn shoreline, because the boat had spotted four whales there the previous day. But on the way, the captain picked up a communique from fishing boats near the north Jersey coastline. There they blew.

And so we beelined toward Jersey. But when we arrived: no whale. An hour later: no whale. A crowd gathered on the bow to look, and look. The sea breeze felt nice, but the truth is, whale-watching is quite boring without whales. I started wondering if maybe Sieswerda had been exaggerating when he told me they’d been seeing whales on almost every trip this year. And then, off the port side, we saw it: a grayish billow of saltwater, like a little geyser. And then another.

A pair of humpback whales flanked the boat. Everyone on the bow shrieked with happiness and held out their iPhones and cameras. The duo did not perform the acrobatic, showy leaps of mating season. They focused on eating rather than dancing. Sometimes only their blowholes and gleaming backs broke through the water, creating a menacing serpentine ripple on the surface. But in other bewitching moments, the whales would heave their snouts and pleated white bellies in the air, buoyant and gulping. We were close enough to see how alien the under-edges of their bottomless mouths looked, almost like the gilled undersides of mushrooms; we could see the crusty barnacles grasping each whale’s immense body. They swam in swoops. They dived. They were alive.

This is not the first time that whales have populated these waters. In Moby-Dick, Melville’s Ishmael abandons Manhattan for Massachusetts, and during the heydey of whaling, New York’s coastline was overshadowed by Nantucket and New Bedford. But its streets were lit with the oil made from slain whales, and Long Island’s Sag Harbor was a smaller-scale whaling hotbed during the 19th century. When New York was New Amsterdam, the North Atlantic was brimming with whales, until it was brimming with whaling ships.

During the 20th century, the whale population was decimated by commercial whaling, their abundance made scarce by overhunting. The United States joined an international moratorium on commercial whaling during the 1980s, but by that time, an unprecedented ecological pillage had taken place. (Norway, Iceland, and Japan continue controversial whaling operations today.)

Before we saw the whales, I sat in the corner on the upper deck and listened to Sieswerda give his naturalist’s spiel about how extraordinary it is to have these creatures back in these waters. “This is a new phenomenon,” he told the small crowd. “Humpback whales have been increasing in numbers and frequency since 2010.” Gotham Whale releases its numbers at the end of every season, and the count has grown from five whales in the New York City area in 2011 to more than 100 by 2014.

But why are the whales back? The question is the kind that has an easy answer, and then a much more complicated one.

Easy answer: The whales are following their food, a small, oily silver fish called menhaden. These animals travel in slow-moving schools, packed so tightly they look alien as they roil through the water. The reason the whale swam up the Hudson River is because, thanks to conservation efforts, the tidal estuary is now a menhaden hangout. They catch plankton with open-mouthed filter feeding, just as the humpbacks eat them, inhaling their meals without understanding that they will die in the same way that they feed, swallowed up in one long gulp by a much larger grazing creature. Commercial crabbers use them as bait. They are processed and turned into fertilizer and fish oil supplements. Houston-based Omega Protein fishes 90 percent of the country’s menhaden to make fish oil products. According to nature writer Paul Greenberg, this is a severe problem, as the company takes a half-billion menhaden from the waters every year. Omega’s aggressive fishing of menhaden remains a concern among environmentalists, but in recent years, tighter regulations have helped them flourish, which in turn helps their predators thrive.

Here’s where it gets more complicated. It’s not like the menhaden appeared out of nowhere. They eat zooplankton and phytoplankton, microscopic creatures and algae that drift through the water. Sieswerda believes that regulations like the Clean Water Act, as well as local efforts to clean up the Hudson River and other surrounding areas, have helped create a better environment for the plankton. And plankton beckoned the menhaden, which beckoned the whales. As a recent Popular Science piece on Gotham Whale pointed out, New York’s cities and beaches were once an “ecological punchline,” which makes this turnaround all the more remarkable.

While Sieswerda thinks warming waters may also have made the New York Bight (22 miles south of the west end of Fire Island, between some of New York’s busiest shipping lanes) more hospitable to menhaden, which means climate change could have a role to play in the resurgence of these animals, he believes increased regulation of the menhaden fishing industry has a more direct role in the increase in the whale’s prey.

Experts still don’t fully understand the exact impetus for the bloom of marine life, which is why Gotham Whale is not the only organization with its eyes on the increase in blowholes emerging around New York’s waters. This appears to be an exciting time in research about this group of cetaceans. Marine biologist Ari Friedlaender is working on a research project with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to understand the whales of NYC by using multisensory tags that show scientists what the animals do underwater, from how they strategize their feeding to how they organize socially.

“You can almost think of a whale as the culmination of emergent properties of the ocean, that have all come together to make a rich environment with a lot of prey and a lot of productivity,” he told me. Friedlaender points to conservation efforts as a likely cause of the better feeding environment, as well as ship traffic regulation.

“It could be that the efforts of people who have nothing to do with whales, but who have tried to restore coastal wetlands or restore water quality, or minimize ship traffic,” he said. “Those things may have all had a net positive effect, such that the whales are now able to be there and thrive in that location.”

Also working for WHOI, marine biologist Mark Baumgartner helped launch a buoy in the New York Bight in order to document the presence of whales. The buoy uses an underwater microphone called a hydrophone to record the acoustics of local marine life. With this hydrophone, it monitors and records a number of different whale species, including humpbacks, right whales, fin whales, and the rare sei whales.

Information from the buoy has already upended some ideas about how whales behave. “I did not expect to find all four species that we are monitoring for,” Baumgartner told me over the phone. “There’s been a few surprises.”

“We expected to see these two pulses of right whales — one in the fall, and then one in the spring when they were migrating through the area. But we actually heard right whales throughout the entire winter,” Baumgartner said. He suspects that the long-held idea that whales migrate on set timetables is not entirely accurate. “We think of them going to these places at certain times of the year and then staying there, and that’s actually not what they do,” he said, noting that the acoustic data they have gathered over the past decade has reinforced a different idea. “Right whales can show up pretty much anywhere at any time.”

WHOI also operates a buoy near Martha’s Vineyard; that one has been designed to keep tabs on an area that the Coast Guard uses for training, since it carries out live fire exercises. “That’s not a very good thing to be doing around endangered large whales,” Baumgartner said. Off the coast of New York, whales are relatively safe from military training debacles, but they do have to deal with an extremely busy shipping port. Ship strikes are a common cause of injury and death for whales. Shipping lanes have been altered twice in recent years in order to make the ocean safer for endangered whales. In Canada’s Bay of Fundy, near New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the lanes shifted 4 nautical miles east in 2003 to help protect the highly endangered northern right whale, which comes to the shallower waters to feed in Grand Manan Basin. In 2007, shipping lanes moved in Boston Harbor as a preemptive measure to protect whales. Biologist David Wiley told Reuters that the change reduced the whales’ chance of ship strikes by up to 80 percent.

This does not mean that NYC will see its shipping lanes shifting anytime soon. “It’s been a very effective strategy when the whales concentrate in areas and avoid other areas,” Baumgartner noted. “In the New York Bight, that’s going to be very difficult to do. Partly because the whales are probably moving around a fair bit, but there’s really no place to put the shipping lanes where you’re not going to have interactions with whales. And I say that because those shipping lanes are just so busy and there’s just not a lot of room to ship them around in.”

Since the buoy has been in the water for only a year, it hasn’t begun transmitting information to outside sources, but Baumgartner says the goal is to give passing ships a heads-up when whales are present. “They’ll know to slow down,” he said.

While that may help, ship strikes are not the only human-made problem plaguing the whales that WHOI is studying. The acoustic buoy will also monitor how the cacophonous noise from ships and boats disrupts how whales communicate with one another and otherwise adversely affects them. Right whales, for instance, tend to swim toward the noise from ships, which is part of the reason their numbers are dwindling at such a horrifying clip. And as Newsweek reported in 2014, seismic oil exploration — a.k.a. offshore drilling — kills both whales and porpoises by further scrambling their ability to communicate.

While many populations of humpback whales have been taken off the endangered species list, the North Atlantic population is still threatened by ship strikes. Prior to the whale that happily swam in the Hudson last November, a separate humpback washed up dead in the Hudson last summer following a ship strike.

And Baumgartner is pessimistic about right whales, as their population has plummeted to less than 500 animals. They are the most critically endangered of the large whales, and their future looks dismal. “The two major causes of mortality in this population are ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements,” he said.

Although ship strikes have decreased for right whales thanks to changes like the decision to move shipping lanes, it’s still not zero, and with six right whales recently dying in Canada, the species is in horrible shape.

Despite the plight of the right whale, the surge in humpback sightings is still an unambiguous cause for celebration within the conservation world.

The American Princess is still the only boat in the boroughs operating as a whale-watching jaunt. Although Gotham Whale has received glowing press, New York City still lacks a reputation as a place to see these creatures. This may not be a bad thing, as other, less scrupulous operations could pop up and not keep a safe distance from the whales; the obscurity might operate as a cocoon. Then again, it is important to recognize that the work of persevering environmental activists and advocates for marine mammals has scored a tangible and beautiful win here, easily measurable in the sheer presence of these animals — and as more people learn about the whales, they may also learn how to safely be in their presence.

“We shouldn’t overlook the fact that this is a significant victory for a species we brought to the brink of extinction not that long ago,” Friedlaender said.

“These whales were doing poorly because of something we did. We changed our behavior, we put resources into it, and because of that, the whales have rebounded.”

Though it is a limited victory, it is a magical one, a comfort at once modest and yet vast as an agape baleen mouth. By dint of the animal’s unnerving heft, it is a large feat to bring a whale back.

“Whales don’t happen in places by accident,” Friedlaender said.