Large, marine animals have been spotted in New York City. And no, we’re not talking about the alligators of urban legend that supposedly live in the sewers here — we’re talking about whales.
When you think of going whale watching, New York City may not immediately spring to mind; places like Anchorage or Monterey are far better known for cetacean spotting. But there was a time when the waters of the East Coast of the United States were teeming with whales, which gave rise to the whaling industry depicted so memorably in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
That very same industry, as we all know, dealt an almost irreversible blow to whale populations in the area, particularly to humpback whales. Whalers were forced to extend their range to far-away seas, including the shores of Africa and the Pacific. However, the tides may be turning, so to speak.
In the future, as in the past, New York City may want to add whale watching to its list of attractions, as whale watchers and biologists have observed an ever-increasing number of humpback whales as close as ½-mile from the Rockaway Peninsula, part of the borough of Queens. This area, along with New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, forms the gateway to New York City’s harbor, meaning that, standing in the same spot, you could face one way to see whales and the other way to see the Manhattan skyline.
At least 19 individual whales were spotted a total of 87 times in 2014 alone, and sightings have been on the rise since fishermen and other sea goers started reported on the phenomenon in 2010. In 2012, there were 15 sighting; in 2013 there were 33.
One of the most fascinating things about the phenomenon is that at present, no one is quite sure why the whales are returning. Theories postulate that this may be a sign that city, state, and federal initiatives on water protection, combined with legal protection of whales and other marine mammals, is working. There may also be an increase in the whales’ foods of choice in the waters around the city, perhaps as a result of increasing global temperatures. The best-case scenario is that these sightings are a sign of an increasing population of whales. Although this has not yet been confirmed, reports elsewhere indicate that whale populations worldwide are increasing again. On the other hand, it may also be a sign that overfishing has left the whales’ usual feeding grounds unable to support the populations, forcing them closer to shore to find food.
Whatever the reason, naturalists and tourists alike are delighted to see the animals return to the New York and New Jersey shores, though there is worry that the presence of whales in these much-trafficked waters may lead to collisions with waterborne vessels. Legislation to create protected areas or to re-route commercial sailing routes may be necessary down the line. But for now, consider adding whale watching to your New York City itinerary!