Hunter Braithwaite
Jul 2020

A breaching whale is one of those iconic sights: 70,000 pounds of flesh and fin leaping into the air, suspended above pristine waters with the rugged coast of Alaska or Iceland in the background.

But strange photos have begun to make the rounds: Instead of pine trees in the background, it’s the New York City skyline. Seems the Big Apple is now home to the world’s biggest animals.

Humpback whales have, in the past 10 years, started to make New York Bight—the crescent of ocean stretching from Cape May, New Jersey, to the far tip of Long Island—part of their annual migration. Their route runs 1,500 miles from breeding grounds off the Dominican Republic up to northern waters between the Gulf of Maine and Nova Scotia. Why have they come to make New York waters a lengthy pit stop along the way? I take the subway to Queens to find out.

On a perfect morning, the 95-foot American Princess rounds the southern tip of Queens and makes a course for New York Bight. Coney Island’s legendary Cyclone roller coaster and Ferris wheel beckon from the beach. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge recedes, and New York looks as it always has been: a city of water. I’m on board with a bunch of eager whale watchers, as well as the crew from Gotham Whale, an advocacy group led by self-described community scientists. I’d be happy to see one whale, but they’re after something much more telling.

Gotham Whale’s New York humpback whale catalog, used to identify returning whales / Image courtesy of Chris Sorensen

“I’m interested in the data points, individual identifications—whether or not we can say we’ve seen the same whale previously,” says Paul Sieswerda, Gotham’s executive director. His accent reflects his career: 19 years at the New England Aquarium, followed by another 21 at the New York Aquarium. If you see a Honda with a big tail decal across the trunk and New York tags reading “Whaleman,” it’s Sieswerda. The data he’s after tells a larger story. And though it’s a long shot, he and his crew hope to use that data to establish New York waters as a whale-friendly sanctuary.

Joining him are Gotham Whale naturalists Celia Ackerman and Dr. Merryl Kafka. Ackerman’s task is to take photos of any whales we spot, and then enter them into Gotham’s New York humpback whale catalog—an actual binder of photographs identifying individual animals based on the shape and patterning of their fluke fins, considered the whale’s fingerprint.

Meanwhile, Kafka presides over the boat’s PA, regaling visitors with decades’ worth of accumulated facts. In a way, Gotham’s mission matches this division of labor: to engage the public with what they find thrilling about the big mammals, and then enlist the public in the creation of a database of sightings.

In 2011, when Gotham first went out on the Princess, there were three sightings for the entire season, which runs from the end of April to early November. Now, almost every trip involves seeing a humpback or 12 (the number Sieswerda had proudly emailed me a few days ago). Before retreating into the wheelhouse, Captain Tom Paladino agrees. “The whales have been incredible. Almost 100-percent sightings.” But that didn’t mean we’re going to see any today.

Dr. Merryl Kafka examining a map of New York Bight / Image courtesy of Chris Sorensen

Gotham and the sightseers aboard the Princess are hardly the first to pursue whales out here. Some of the earliest accounts of whaling in the country happened off Long Island, where in the mid-1600s Native Americans and colonists chased pilot whales into shallow waters to slaughter them. The whaling industry, fueled by the new nation’s need for lamp oil (whale oil doesn’t smoke), continued to grow for the next two centuries, stretching from New Bedford, Massachusetts, through New York Harbor and 100 miles up the Hudson River to Claverack Landing—now the rustically posh town of Hudson. The 1859 discovery of petroleum, the Civil War, and the dwindling number of the animals themselves all led to the industry’s decline, though there wasn’t a global moratorium on commercial whaling until 1986. Once the killing stopped, pollution kept the few survivors far away.

In the mid-20th century it was common to see abandoned cars rusting in the city’s canals and giant oil slicks surrounding the Statue of Liberty, but with the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act, which sought to make the country’s navigable waterways swimmable and fishable by 1985 (an ambitious goal, considering the legislation was inspired by the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland literally catching fire), New York’s waterways began their slow recovery. Today the city’s 14 water treatment plants process 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater every day, and the harbor is cleaner than it has been since 1909 (when the city began its Harbor Survey Program), leading to a resurgence at every level of the ecosystem, from algae and oysters up to humpback whales.

As we pass the tip of the Rockaways, Captain Tom’s voice crackles on the PA: “Ten o’clock.” Everyone rushes to the port side and the boat cants ominously. Ackerman runs over, camera shutter fluttering. “Atlantic bottlenose dolphins,” says Kafka, pointing to a dozen of the cetaceans surfing an offshore break, their bodies flashing in the sun. “They’re like small whales. They have 88 teeth. That’s how many keys are on a piano.”

A brace of bottlenose dolphins surf an offshore break / Image courtesy of Artie Raslich, Gotham Whale

Sieswerda taps me on the shoulder. “See out there, where it looks like raindrops on the water? That’s what the dolphins feed on. The whales, too.” The dimpled surface he points to is caused by a massive churning school of menhaden, a.k.a. bunker. “If there’s food, and there’s dolphins, there’s got to be whales,” says Kafka. We wait. Nothing happens. The menhaden continue to mill about unmolested. We scan the horizon, but see little besides the skyscrapers in the distance.

The name menhaden comes from the Algonquin word for fertilizer, and these small, oily fish were once planted alongside crops. By the 1880s, the bait was big business: 500 million pounds were harvested each year from U.S. waters—more than all other species of fish put together. More oil came from menhaden than from whales. In New York, menhaden were processed in several plants on Barren Island—a stone’s throw from where the American Princess docks today— then boiled and pressed into something appetizingly called “cheese.” This was sold as fertilizer to local farmers, who in turn provided the ever-growing metropolis with food. Today, their high oil content has made them extremely profitable and they’re used in everything from food for farmed salmon to fish-oil pills and lipstick.

As previous EPA regulations have led New York to clean up its waters (the current administration is weakening EPA standards), the menhaden have come back in force. Close behind are their predators—not just whales, but also bluefish, striped bass and even bluefin tuna—making them crucial to professional fisherman like Captain John McMurray, who runs four sportfishing charter boats out of Rockaway, Queens. McMurray started noticing large schools of menhaden around 2013. “That’s brought in all kinds of life,” he says, including the whales. “They wouldn’t be here without them. And those things eat a lot, so there’s got to be a lot of menhaden around to bring them in.”

Their reappearance has as much to do with New York’s cleaner waters as it does with McMurray’s own efforts. In 2011, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a regulatory body McMurray is a part of, completed a stock assessment of menhaden. They averaged three years of reductions (the technical term for industrial fishing harvests), cut that average by 20 percent, and then capped it. As a result, the food chain flourished: more menhaden, more striped bass, more tuna and more humpback whales.

McMurray tosses a cast net to capture menhaden for bait / Image courtesy of Chris Sorensen

But there is another predator in the area, and its appetite has a ripple effect. The Houston-based Omega Protein (owned by the Canadian multinational corporation Cooke Inc.) operates seven purseseine trawlers out of Reedville, Virginia—a fishing town founded in the 1870s by a menhaden fishing captain named Elijah Reed. The boats fish the mid-Atlantic region, sailing between North Carolina and New York and dropping their seines—giant nets capable of scooping up tens of thousands of pounds of menhaden at a time. The current cap allows them to harvest hundreds of millions of pounds—an amount that Omega claims is perfectly sustainable, according to the available science. “There hasn’t been any evidence that there’s any species out there that is food-deprived because of menhaden fishing,” says Ben Landry, Omega Protein’s director of public affairs.

But from Sieswerda and McMurray’s perspective, there’s not enough data to reach that conclusion—the whales haven’t been back long enough for anyone to know how much food they need. Same with the other fish. McMurray and the ASMFC are working on a new approach, an amendment to the cap that would lower it even more, taking into account the needs of the entire ecosystem— from menhaden up to humpback—while cosidering the livelihoods of local fishermen like McMurray.

Though New York passed a bill banning the seine fishing of menhaden, Omega is currently allowed to fish in the area; they just have to stay three miles off the coast. Meanwhile, Gotham Whale has created a petition to extend the boundary to 20 miles, an effort Omega fears would lead to 20-mile bans off New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia. “These [restrictions] aren’t based on ecosystem needs,” says Landry. “They’re based on ‘I don’t want you fishing in my backyard.’ ”

Gotham Whale has honed in on another way to protect the humpbacks: convince the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to recognize the waters off the coast of New York as a new seasonal whale feeding ground. This could prohibit commercial outfits from fishing there, though they could still drop their seines elsewhere along the coast. The group aims to use their NYC humpback whale catalog, an index of the 163 whales they’ve seen since 2011, to gain the NOAA recognition.

But visual observation can only go so far. This is where the work of Dr. Howard Rosenbaum comes in. Now the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program, Rosenbaum has spent the past 30 years studying whales in every ocean on Earth, but he grew up on Long Island, and is happy to have come full circle. In addition to photographic identification, Rosenbaum uses a crossbow with a hollow-tip dart to collect tissue samples from the whales. His team also maintains both passive and real-time acoustic monitoring systems, submerging six recorders near the ocean floor between New Jersey and Coney Island, and up into New York Harbor. These acoustic data devices listen 24 hours a day for the songs and clicks of passing whales. Periodically, Rosenbaum and his team pull them up and analyze the data. 

A humpback whale dives with the New York City skyline as a backdrop / Image courtesy of Artie Raslich, Gotham Whale

And then there’s Melville, a buoy Rosenbaum placed 22 miles off the coast of Fire Island in partnership with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In near real time, Melville monitors four different whale species: the humpback, the fin, the sei whale and even the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered whales on the planet. “If a whale vocalizes,” says Rosenbaum, “I’ll get an alert to my cell phone that we have a whale in that area.”

Rosenbaum located Melville strategically near busy shipping lanes—the humpback’s overall population growth has led to an increased number of boat strikes—and close to proposed sites for offshore wind-energy development, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is aggressively pursuing. “While we are really encouraged by wildlife off of our shores, we also have to recognize the big picture, that these animals are coming into contact with ships and other industries,” says Rosenbaum. Wind farms may be great for the planet, but the blasts used in construction may not be so great for the acoustically sensitive whales. Even so, Rosenbaum’s research is helping to create a road map, and one company, Equinor, has committed to using a gravity-based solution to drill into the ocean floor, as opposed to the noisy pile-driving.

Back on the American Princess, there are still no whales in sight. Francesca Fallaci, a volunteer with Gotham Whale, admits that only once before has she come back without a sighting. “This might be the second time.” The voyage has been worth it, though—the weather has been delightful, the view of the city surreal. The dolphins were fine, too. But then, off the coast of East Rockaway Inlet—spouts in the distance. The boat threatens to capsize again. Fathers hold up their toddlers to get a better look. A woman from Long Island slaps her kid on the back: “Aren’t you glad I got you out of bed?” When the whale surfaces next to the ship and exhales, the breeze turns fetid and people begin to cough. It turns out a diet of oily menhaden gives the whales terrible breath. 

As the American Princess heads back to Riis Landing, Ackerman and Fallaci huddle over the humpback whale catalog, comparing photos of flukes and dorsal fins. It’s rudimentary, but it does the trick. “Just to be here, with that,” Fallaci says, nodding out to the water, toward the whale’s fingerprint—a flat, oily patch of water left behind after surfacing. “I just find it overwhelming.” Returning to her work, she ID’s humpback number NYC0073, a repeat sighting, having been spotted ten times since 2017, which in many ways is more important than spotting new whales. It’s how the team at Gotham establish site fidelity, says Kafka, which is the first step to protecting the waters, not just the whales. “Do they come back to the same neighborhood to feed? The answer is yes.”

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