Hudson River Humpback Whale

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On Friday, November 18th, an unseasonably warm day for late-autumn in NYC, local news stations reported a whale sighting in New York Harbor.  I rode my bike south along the Hudson Greenway to the tip of Manhattan hoping to catch a glimpse of the animal and see it off safely. Much as I love the Hudson, I get a sinking feeling when I hear marine mammals have made their way up the river from the ocean. Like elephants in the traffic-choked streets of Bangkok, it seems dangerous and wrong.

When I reached the esplanade at Battery Place, I picked a spot across from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty where the whale was reported to have been swimming, and asked a couple of anglers if they had seen it. They hadn’t even heard about it and proceeded to wisecrack about illegal migration and needing bigger hooks. It was just after 3:00 p.m., an hour-and-a-half before sunset this time of year. Between sun glare, wind and boat racket, filming conditions could only have been worse if it had been raining but I set my cell phone for video recording and panned the length of the river for twenty minutes. The whale eventually surfaced about 200 yards from where I stood with a telltale spout of water that brought hoots of excitement from the jaded fisherman and drew a crowd of onlookers. I missed the shot but continued to scan the river with my phone, missing the whale each time it surfaced — except for one brief moment, indicated by an orange circle in this footage.

Eventually the sun began to set and I had to tear myself away from the crowd of 40-50 whale-watchers who had gathered. I left hoping the Staten Island Ferry, Circle Line and dozens of other river boat operators would heed river police warnings to slow down and steer clear of the animal as it headed back to sea –wishful thinking, it turned out, as it was later spotted seven miles upriver near the George Washington Bridge, the farthest north a whale has been seen in recent memory. It’s presence near the bridge means it likely passed within 500 yards of my west side apartment. Had I known, I might have caught a glimpse of the whale, subsequently identified as a humpback, from the overlook in nearby Riverside Park.

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Humpbacks are among the world’s most endangered whales, with only about 80,000 individuals, or less than 10% of there original numbers, remaining. They range across all the world’s oceans circumnavigating the globe from summer feeding grounds to warm seas in the winter. Of the three distinct humpback populations –Southern, North Pacific and North Atlantic–the Hudson whale was likely a wayward son of the last group.  Northern humpbacks reach an average length of 49 to 52 feet with mature adults weighing in at 35 to 50 tons. They are baleen whales with 14 to 35 long throat pleats that expand when they take in water while feeding. Given the amount of garbage and raw sewage floating on the Hudson at any given time, this is a source of concern.

Whales that turn up in unusual places are often sick or disoriented and end up washing up dead or wounded. In this case, the whale was behaving in a manner that indicated it was feeding on migrating fish. Bunker (Menhaden) and other fish humpbacks feed on are reportedly plentiful in the Hudson these days.  That’s a good sign, but another source of concern due to the temptation large schools of prey fish present to big ocean mammals and the potential the busy river holds for their collision with boats. I hoped the whale realized it was in the wrong part of town and headed back down the river to the open ocean. But this too was wishful thinking as sightings continued throughout the week.

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Image courtesy of WCPD Special Operations Official Instagram account of the Westchester County Police Special Operations Division. publicsafety.westchestergov.com

The number of humpback whale sightings in the Hudson has been rising over the last five years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and New York environmental officials issued alerts to boaters to slow down and watch out for whales following three strikes in 2013, including one in which a cruise ship dragged a 55-foot finback whale into the Hudson River.

2015 was the worst year to date for whale mortality in New York  with nine whales, mostly humpbacks, washing up on Long Island beaches. The majority of carcasses reportedly had wounds consistent with ship strikes. Ship strikes are not the only threat to whales. Propellers and engines produce sounds in frequencies similar to those whales use to communicate, leading to signal scrambling and increasing the potential for disorientation and stranding in unfamiliar waters.

But the biggest human impact on whales in the region may be climate change.

“Warming waters may already be responsible for a large increase in sightings of humpbacks in recent years near the entrance to New York Harbor,” Paul L. Sieswerda, the founder of Gotham Whale, recently told The New York Times. In 2012, he said whale watchers spotted 25 whales; by 2014 the number had spiked to 107. Warming oceans are drawing vast schools of whale prey fish from their usual range off Chesapeake Bay north to New York, said Mr. Sieswerda.

“If this keeps up more humpback whale sightings in the Hudson River might not be so rare,” Sieswerda told NJ.com.  He asks that anyone who spots a whale send a photo, location, time and, if possible, species to paul@gothamwhale.org.

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In a related story, a humpback whale spotted feeding in Moriches Bay, Long Island  on November 13 was euthanized by veterinarians when it got stuck in a shallow area of the bay called Hart’s Cove and attempts to free the whale and help it swim away failed.

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