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Rarely seen pilot whales spotted off Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh

Two rarely seen pilot whales were spotted close to shore at Jones Beach on Wednesday. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Two rarely-spotted pilot whales, herding bunker fish, reappeared at Wantagh's Jones Beach State Park on Wednesday morning.

"I noticed some people looking out in the water, and looked where they were looking, and 'Lo and Behold,' there they were," said the park's director, Kevin Connolly, who drove along the shore while following them for about three-quarters of a mile.

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Two rarely-spotted pilot whales, herding bunker fish, reappeared at Wantagh's Jones Beach State Park on Wednesday morning.

"I noticed some people looking out in the water, and looked where they were looking, and 'Lo and Behold,' there they were," said the park's director, Kevin Connolly, who drove along the shore while following them for about three-quarters of a mile.

These two pilots were much closer — perhaps just 100 to 150 yards from the shore — than the ones spotted on Monday, which were about 700 to 1,000 yards from the beach in front of the park’s Central Mall. 

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"They were traveling from east to west," said Connelly. "Just offshore, there is an outer bar. They were swimming along it, herding bunker fish."

"And they did breach for me a couple of times, which is really cool to see," he said. Video he shot shows one of the creatures, sometimes called black fish or potheads because of their rounded skulls, leaping out of the water. 

Four dolphins, which are a much more commonly seen off Long Island, followed their larger cousins, Connelly said.

How long the pilots, which can live half a century, linger near Jones Beach likely will depend on whether the the bait fish remain plentiful, said Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist, with the non-profit Hampton Bays-based Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.

He was eager to see the video to confirm they were indeed pilot whales. "It's not a common occurrence, if these are pilot whales," he said, as they usually stay south of the shipping lanes.

Pilot whales "kind of overlap" in this area with another dolphin species, the Risso's dolphin, he said. The Risso's dolphin also has what is called a blunt head, which contrasts with the bottlenose dolphins that also are found in the Atlantic off Long Island. 

"Pilot whales, just like the dolphins we see — we're having more and more sightings," the scientist said, especially dolphins. "There is plenty of food here," he said. "I would say if there is food in the area, and they are getting everything they need, why would they move?"

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Pilot whales have not been studied extensively, he said, so any migratory patterns, for instance, have been not been verified. Long-finned pilots tend to prefer cooler waters but this area also might be attracting the short-finned variety though they prefer the warmer, southern waters.  

The pilot whales' distinctive heads sometime are called melons, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which describes them as a highly social and wide-ranging species.

They are formidable divers: They can hunt fish and squid for as long as 10 to 16 minutes as far down as 2,000 feet, according to the NOAA's web site.  On the surface, their behavior includes "raising their heads above the surface or lifting their flukes out of the water and splashing them down against the surface," the website says. "They are also regularly seen resting or logging at the surface in a chorus-line or stacked formation, and sometimes approach vessels moving at slow speeds."

Pilot whales also mostly feed at night, according to the NOAA, which makes their daytime sightings off Jones Beach even more unusual.

Said DiGiovanni: "As long as it looks like they are healthy, and doing what they should be doing, that's a positive thing for the environment," he said.

Connelly agreed: "It just speaks to the quality of the water around Long Island, all the steps being taken in sewage reduction and stormwater collection. We're starting to see it pay off."