Three beluga whales have been spotted off the coast of New Jersey -- likely the same ones that frolicked off Long Island's North Shore during Memorial Day weekend, authorities said Monday.
This group of visitors keep intriguing researchers with their journey down the coast from their Canadian home to Rhode Island, then to Manhasset Bay, then somehow southwest to the Jersey shore, said Kim Durham, research program director for the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.
Three reports from members of the public placed these whales less than a mile from the Sandy Hook bridge Sunday morning, and two of the creatures were photographed, said Jay Pagel, senior field technician with the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a New Jersey-based nonprofit.
The white mammals had been seen in Shoreham last Tuesday, about 40 feet off a jetty, so researchers thought they were headed back up north toward their St. Lawrence River home, Riverhead Foundation officials said.
But Sandy Hook is south of Brooklyn, where the lower New York Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.
While belugas, which live off Canada and Alaska, have visited Long Island alone in the past, having three in a pack down here is "unprecedented," Durham said.
That's why she thinks the three in New Jersey were the juveniles who thrilled Long Islanders. One of them has been confirmed as a male from the endangered beluga population living in St. Lawrence River in Canada, and it is believed his two companions also hail from that group.
"I don't think you'll find many people saying there's another group of three," Durham said. "Do I know 100 percent? No. But is it the same animals? It has to be."
Durham said at first she figured the group navigated from the North Shore and through New York Harbor to New Jersey -- except she couldn't imagine how three white mammals could have traveled down the busy waterways without anyone reporting them.
Then she remembered an unconfirmed sighting the foundation got of a white whale with no dorsal fin spotted 50 yards off Robert Moses State Park on Friday. Belugas have a little ridge on their backs instead of the distinctive dorsal fins that characterize most whales.
"Instead of going through New York Harbor, they may have gone east, gone around Montauk and continued south," Durham said.
Marine-mammal experts and several agencies, including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plan to keep monitoring the belugas' progress.
"We're very intrigued," Durham said.
So far, the whales have shown normal behavior, including feeding on schools of fish, Riverhead Foundation officials said.
But marine-mammal researchers said they hope the three leave the New York-New Jersey harbor areas and its heavily traveled shipping lanes.
Not only are they worried about ships and their propellers hitting the whales, they think it's not the best sounding place.
"It's got to be acoustically loud," Durham said. "So I'm kind of hoping that area is not where they want to stick around."