Whales have enchanted Marian Trupiano of Brooklyn most of her life. She first fell in love with the beluga whales on her near-weekly visits to the New York Aquarium as a little girl.
“I grew up watching ‘Flipper’ in the 1960s,” she said. “I couldn’t miss it.”
When she found out about the Gotham Whale tours running out of Breezy Point on the western edge of the Rockaway Peninsula some six years ago, she headed right down to the dock.
Trupiano has since been on the whale cruises 10 times.
Humpback whale sightings were fewer back in 2010 when Gotham Whale, a nonprofit group, first hooked up with American Princess Cruises to offer whale and dolphin tours.
Still, Trupiano has seen at least one whale on seven of her 11 trips so far, she says.
Today, the cruise organizers say they have a 90 percent success rate for whale sightings, voyaging as far east as the Fire Island Reef and as far south as Deal, N.J.
Despite the travel, many of the whale sightings happen not too far offshore of the Rockaways.
“It’s not an aquarium,” said Captain Frank DeSantis of the American Princess after a trek on Friday with greaterfireisland.com that yielded no whale sightings.
“We’re going out into the wild, into their environment,” DeSantis said. “This is titled the ‘Whale and Dolphin Watching Adventure Cruise,’ because that’s what it is, an adventure. You’re going out into the ocean where they swim and they move. It’s their home.”
Despite no whales, the 157 passengers on board Friday were delighted to see a large, playful pod of about 100 bottle-nosed dolphins dive and jump (and more) in the water.
The pod included adults and babies, even one pregnant female was spotted.
You never know what you’re going to see on any given day.
“I think that makes it even more exciting,” DeSantis said.
But it wasn’t long ago when no one would ever see whales near New York City.
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return of the humpback
Humpbacks are a favorite species for whale watchers because of their aerial displays, which include breaching and slapping the surface of the water with their tail (fluke), fins or head.
Like most whale species, humpbacks were nearly driven to extinction by whaling.
Today, while still endangered, they are increasing in abundance in much of their range, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
NOAA stresses that estimating population numbers is difficult, but in its latest Status Review of the Humpback Whale, puts the number in the North Atlantic at 11,570.
Those numbers were based on data collected in 1992 and 1993, according to NOAA.
Back then, there were absolutely no whales being spotted near New York City, said Paul Sieswerda, the president and CEO of Gotham Whale.
He would know. Sieswerda was curator of the New York Aquarium from 1998 to 2009, before which he served as curator of fishes and mammals at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
He went onto found Gotham Whale in 2010, a project he describes as a citizen-funded science experiment.
“The citizens are funding our platform through the fares on the American Princess,” he said. “We also ask people to contribute any photographs they might shoot for our catalogue.”
That catalogue is then shared with other catalogue-keepers up and down the coastline, from Main to Virginia, with each of the humpbacks identifiable through unique markings on their flukes.
The sharing of information so far this summer has revealed that three different humpback whales have traveled between New York City and Montauk in recent weeks.
“There are three humpbacks for which we have clear evidence of transit between New York Harbor out to Montauk,” said Dr. Artie Kopelman, a marine mammal ecologist and the president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island.
He’s been running whale-watching tours for the public for almost three decades out of Montauk.
“There had never been photographic proof of transit from one place to the other,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and no one else was doing it in New York that whole time. And now with Gotham Whale we work together and share stuff, and it really has been a blessing.”
whales and the city
Like Sieswerda, Kopelman says the humpbacks are coming to NYC to enjoy a favorite snack: bunker (or menhaden) which he said have been better managed in recent years, leading to more of them.
Gotham Whale’s on-board photographer, Artie Raslich, as well as other photographers, have captured several images of the whales lunging up out of the water after the bunker.
Raslich spends most voyages on the second deck, outside the captain’s room of the American Princess, scanning the water for whales.
He says getting that perfect whale photo is all about the baitfish.
“The bunker’s got to be on the surface in order for you to really see them go nuts,” he said.
“Humpbacks, like other whales, are able to convey information,” Kopelman said, “and when they have new feeding area, it becomes ultimately shared, one way or the other.”
Kopelman said he had never seen a humpback, in photos or real life, feeding on bunker like they do off the waters of New York City.
And just the fact that they’re so close to the city, everyone involves says, is truly remarkable.
“See whales and the Statue of Liberty,” Kopelman said. “It’s pretty spectacular.”
That’s something along the lines of what DeSantis told the passengers aboard the American Princess last week as they peered out at the dolphin pod.
“Wildlife and the New York City skyline,” he said. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
Sieswerda and the others on the American Princess have now come to call the Rockaways “the new Cape Cod.”
Gotham Whale is also watching very carefully at how the bunker are being managed to help ensure there’s always a healthy population for the humpbacks of New York.
However, the whales have also come to one the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Ship strikes are one of the leading killers of whales worldwide, according to NOAA.
Gotham Whale wants cargo ship operators be better aware that they’re sharing the water with animals that grow up to 52 feet long and weigh between 30 and 50 tons.
“We’re trying to work with the shipping industry, because they don’t want to strike and hurt whales,” Sieswerda said. “But it’s a $5 billion industry; nothing is going to be shut down.
“What we’re advocating for is concern, and for people to have the best information possible, so that good choices can be made to best accommodate whales and humans.”
In the meantime, people like Marian Trupiano and her family can continue to be delighted by the charismatic humpbacks that have been dazzling fare-payers (and research-funders!) going on six years now.
Her favorite whale encounter was with a humpback who’s come to be called Jerry.
“It was three years ago,” she recalled. “He was doing water rolls. He was waving at everyone. He breached.
“Jerry was performing at his best that day.”
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