As incredible as this may sound to some, for the past few years, humpback whales have been making a regular appearance in the waters off New York City. Once driven to the brink of local extinction during the city’s whaling years, the whales are said to be back in these waters, after nearly a century.
One of the key reasons attributed to the return of the whales is the decades of efforts invested in cleaning up the city’s waterways. This improvement in water quality has led to an increase in the numbers of marine microorganisms like zooplankton and algae, which in turn has rejuvenated the entire food chain. Thriving numbers of menhaden (also known as bunker), a small fish that feeds on these microorganisms, has enticed the humpbacks to return to NYC’s waters to feed. Other initiatives like enforcing catch limits for industrial fishing, have also helped maintain the number of these small fish.
The last time I saw a whale in its natural setting was in Kaikoura (NZ), over 11 years ago. Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to see sperm whales all year round. More recently, in 2016, I wrote about a sperm whale carcass that had washed up on the shores of Singapore, possibly the victim of a ship strike in the South China Seas. The skeleton of this female sperm whale found a final resting place in the local natural history museum, and is used to educate visitors about the many dangers faced by these behemoths in today’s waters, the main ones being ship strikes and plastic pollution.
During my recent visit to NYC, between visiting family and meeting old friends, I managed to squeeze in not one, but two (!) whale watching trips (on two separate days, of course).
The journey from my hotel in Tribeca, to Riis Landing from where the American Princess ferry departs for its whale watching tours, took about two hours. Getting to Riis Landing can seem a little daunting for a first-timer to the city, so I’ve included directions at the end of this post.
Catherine Granton from Gotham Whale, the naturalist on board, was terrific with educating visitors on onboard about whale protection programs like ‘See a spout, watch out’ as well as simple things one could do in daily life to protect the oceans, like not using plastic bags or straws. Here are some more easy to do tips for protecting the ocean.
Gotham Whale lists 59 different individuals in their Humpback Whale catalog but sadly, none of them made an appearance on either of my tours. I sat staring at the horizon, recalling every image of lunge feeding humpbacks that I had seen on social media, hoping the scene would unfold before my eyes any second…. but it didn’t! 😦
I’m completely aware that we cannot control nature, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. We did see plenty of bottleneck dolphins though…..
There have been some spectacular humpback whale and cownose ray sightings on the trips after mine. Hopefully, the city will continue to control shipping traffic and pollution in these waters, and some day in the future, there will be another opportunity to see NYC’s humpback whales. Till then, fingers crossed!
Directions to Riis Landing: Take the A train to Far Rockaway and disembark at the 67 Beach Street station. Walk out of the station, past the line of stores, towards the Shop ‘n Save/YMCA and take the Q22 bus from outside the YMCA. Get off at the very last stop, Fort Tilden and walk back to the main road (where the bus turned). Cross the street and walk to your left for a few seconds. You will see the Riis Landing signboard, right opposite the main entry gate of Fort Tilden.
Bonus tip: There’s a food truck outside Fort Tilden, Breezy Dogs and Shakes, that’s a real lifesaver after 4 long hours at sea! Refuel there before heading back.