A Whale of an Island

Long Island’s history with whales likely dates back to the 1600s when, according to sparse artifacts such as engravings, Native Americans hunted whales that swam close to shore. Long Islanders went on to pioneer whaling in the Northeast, opening ports in Sag Harbor, Greenport and Cold Spring Harbor. The whale was like a buffalo. It had multiple purposes—food, oil, tool-making.

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Though the International Whaling Commission banned almost all whaling in 1986, our shores had appeared void of the sea mammals for about half a century. But last July, two humpbacks were repeatedly spotted in the Long Island Sound, prompting media and beachgoers to wonder if whales were navigating local waters more often. Robert A. DiGiovanni, the founder and chief scientist of Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and former Riverhead Foundation executive director, said that historically, Riverhead Foundation would get word of a few sightings per year. Since 2014, it has gotten a few per week, mostly in New York Harbor, the Long Island Sound and the South Shore of Long Island.

But DiGiovanni and other experts aren’t ready to call it a comeback just yet.

“We are having more sightings. Whether it’s a byproduct of having more animals, more animals staying here longer or anecdotal, we don’t know,” DiGiovanni said.

Research projects are looking into whether or not whales are coming to Long Island more frequently or whether people are simply seeing them more often. Scientists know that minke, right, humpback and fin cross through Long Island waters from reported sightings. But because the Sound and ocean are massive bodies of water, getting complete and accurate data has always been a challenge. However one project by the NYS Department of Conservation, which started early this year, is aiming to cover more ground by doing aerial surveys. DiGiovanni said it’s scheduled for completion in 2020 and hopes it will give scientists conclusive answers as to how many whales pass through our waters, how often and what is keeping them around.

An increased population would be good news for Long Island: it’s a sign of a healthy eco-system.

“Most whales are apex predators so they’re at the top of the food chain,” said Joseph Warren, an associate professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Studies at Stony Brook University. “If you’ve got enough food to supply all the way up the food chain, that’s a good thing.”

It’s no surprise, then, that food is a common hypothesis for the increased number of sightings. Turns out, Long Island’s fresh seafood may be a hit with whales, too. Humpback whales often feed off bunker, which also may be making a comeback, according to researchers. It makes LI a prime spot for whales to refuel during their journeys to Maine and Nova Scotia for the summer and the Caribbean and Florida for the winter.

“It’s like a rest area on a highway,” DiGiovanni said. “It may not be the final destination but if there’s food, it’s not as busy, it might be a good place to hang out, slow down or take a break.”

DiGiovanni added that it’s not necessarily a sign that the water is cleaner, though. Trash and high nitrogen levels, which can produce harmful algal blooms that can cause fish die-offs, could keep whales at bay.

Entanglements and boat collisions are also leading causes of whale fatalities. The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), which has compiled and evaluated stranding data in New York for more than two decades, said about 4 of 10 dead whales that show signs of ship strike are from New York. But not all deaths can be explained. In November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had to euthanize a humpback whale that was stranded for days in Center Moriches. Devastated members of the public held a vigil for it, while biologists are stumped as to why the whale got stranded. But DiGiovani said that the public and scientists can work together to prevent future deaths. In addition to picking up trash (and not adding to it by littering), the public is encouraged to report sightings of healthy or injured whales by calling the New York State stranding hotline 631-369-9829. This can do more than save an injured whale.

“Some member of the public is out there every day. We’re not. Knowing we have three whales swimming around makes us more alert to animals in the area,” DiGiovani said, adding that it also helps AMCS compile more accurate data about the frequency and reasons whales are coming to Long Island waters.

Federal law dictates that people remain 50 yards (150 feet) from marine mammals. Because right whales are endangered, the public must remain 500 yards (1,500 feet) from them. But that doesn’t prevent them from spotting a whale making a splash. Whale watching tours run out of Montauk and the Rockaways. During trips, tour guides often go over the types of whales people may see, what they eat, encroachment laws and conservation efforts. It makes the sail more than a weekend outing or source of revenue. It’s a fun way to reach the public.

“Education helps the public understand the habitat these whales are in needs to be protected,” DiGiovani said.

This month, Pulse is looking at all things beaches. Check back on July 20 to meet locals who are working to make our gorgeous waters clean and pristine. 

beth ann clyde

beth ann clyde

Beth Ann Clyde is a social strategist of Long Island Pulse. Have a story idea or just want to say hello? Email bethann@lipulse.com or reach out on Twitter @BAClyde.