Humpback Whales Take a Bite of the New York Bight


BY JULIE LARSEN MAHER  (@julielmaher)

The waters are calm as the American Princess cruises through the New York Bight, a nick of the Atlantic Ocean splayed between the shores of New Jersey and Long Island. Squinting, I spy a gentle “boil” of the ocean as hundreds of small shiny fish break the surface in circles spreading slowly outward.

Suddenly, a humpback whale bursts through this bait ball off the starboard side like a torpedo to its mark. The whale’s mouth is open wide and scooping in as many fish as it can hold, with the remnants spilling back into the sea. As it smacks its massive head down, a wave of very fishy whale’s breath blows across the bow of the boat.

The New York seascape’s warm waters are coming back to life, and these great leviathans are here to take a bite of the Bight.

Paul L. Sieswerda, a naturalist with Gotham Whale (the citizen science group that partners with the American Princess) is on board with me. He thinks the return of humpbacks to the New York Bight is a matter of their finding good food.

The menhaden have returned in numbers that local fishermen say they have never seen before — likely due to the improvement of local water quality. Sieswerda says all the environmental work since the ’70s is finally paying off. There is also a cap in place now on the Atlantic fishery for menhaden, a fish harvested for fertilizer and omega-3 fish oil.

The cap has reduced the catch by approximately 300 million fish. Because the whales have found a good feeding ground near New York City, Gotham Whale is seeing more of them in the area each year. Sieswerda adds with a grin, “They tell two friends, who tell two friends…”

The New York Bight is a haven for whales, dolphins, seals, sharks, and other fishes. Within sight of the sandy shores of New Jersey and Long Island, much of this sea life can be spotted regularly. A pod of over 50 bottlenose dolphins was dining in the Bight on a warm Sunday at the end of September. So far in 2014, 69 sightings of humpback whales have been recorded. The whale-watch season goes until mid-October according to Sieswerda.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape program continues working to keep this 15,000-square-mile corner of the Atlantic and its adjoining tributaries thriving.

Photographer’s Note: Timing is everything when photographing whales. Pulling myself away from the sheer awe of the moment (and that is the length of a whale feeding, fluking, or breaching) long enough to grab my camera and hold down the shutter button often results in lots of images of splashes, but few of whales. It is okay to take lots of photographs. Images of whales’ flukes and dorsal fins can help biologists identify individual whales through their unique shapes and markings.


Julie Larsen Maher is the sixth staff photographer appointed by WCS since its founding in 1895. She is also the first woman to hold the position. Julie takes photos at WCS’s five New York-based wildlife parks including the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, New York Aquarium, Prospect Park Zoo, and Queens Zoo. She also journeys to remote field locations to photograph some of the world’s leading conservationists, and the culture, wildlife, and wild lands that they aim to protect in more than 60 countries. Julie also edits the WCS Wild View photo blog, which features assignments for submissions by the public.


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