An adult humpback whale breaches the water as viewed from a Coastal...

An adult humpback whale breaches the water as viewed from a Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island whale watching cruise off the coast of Massachusetts in 2009. Credit: Richard Slattery

In August, a surveyor for an offshore wind energy company observed two recreational boats pursuing a pair of fin whales off the South Shore of Long Island at high speed. The whales — so streamlined and swift they have been nicknamed the "greyhounds of the sea" — repeatedly zigzagged, but apparently could not get away as the boats chased them for hours. The surveyor reported the boats nearly hit the animals at least three times.

Local marine mammal experts say incidents like this have become more common off Long Island’s shores in recent years as whales spend more time in the region. And they warn that chasing or simply getting too close to a whale can risk serious injury to the whale and to boaters.

Harassment of whales is also illegal. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance” that could injure a marine mammal, including dolphins, seals and sea lions, otters, polar bears and whales. It also bans acts that can “disturb” an animal “by disrupting behavioral patterns,” including “migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

Violators can face seizure of their boat, civil penalties up to $34,457 as well as criminal fines, and up to a year in prison.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency charged with enforcing the law, patrols 4 million square miles of the vast ocean, and experts suspect most incidents are neither witnessed nor reported.

NOAA's records show five cases in which boaters were fined for harassing whales in 2022 and the first eight months of 2023. The incidents occurred throughout the agency's jurisdiction — from Alaska to the Pacific Islands and from Maine to Florida.

“If you have changed the behavior of the animal, you are far too close,” said Maxine Montello, rescue program director for New York Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead. “We encourage everyone to observe from a safe distance and not cause any stress to these animals.”

Several whale species — including North Atlantic right whales, fin, humpback, minke, pilot and sperm whales — have migrated along the East Coast for millenniums, usually traveling north to Canada in the summer, and back down to their calving grounds in more tropical waters for the winter. Most were hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, the discovery in the late 1960s by the biologist Roger Payne that humpbacks use ethereal, musical calls to communicate with their pods, and his 1970 surprise hit album, “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” inspired a worldwide campaign to save the whales. An international moratorium on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986 led to a slow, partial recovery for some species.

But it’s only in the past decade or so that whales have begun to linger in the area from Cape May to Montauk. The whales are here because Atlantic menhaden are here, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America. Menhaden are a favorite forage fish for whales, especially humpbacks. But overfishing — largely for commercial fish-oil supplements and fertilizers — had reduced their numbers by 90% by the early years of this century. Better fishery management practices, notably a limit placed on menhaden catches in 2012, have helped their populations rebound; healthier populations and warming waters have drawn more menhaden and therefore more whales to the area. 

The dead whales that have washed ashore on local beaches in greater numbers recently are often casualties of container or tanker ship strikes, one of the leading causes of whale deaths along the Eastern Seaboard. At least 17 whales have washed up in the New York-New Jersey area this year, marking a record number of dead whales in the region.

Still, “it’s not just large ships that are hitting whales,” says Arthur Kopelman, a marine biologist and president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. Smaller pleasure boats also have struck whales, causing varying degrees of injury.

Several marine mammal experts said reckless behavior by recreational boaters and even those riding personal watercraft is common anywhere whales are found. Humpbacks may be especially at risk, because they spend time closer to shore, and because their acrobatic leaping is thrilling to watch.

Kopelman said passengers aboard a whale watching vessel last summer witnessed a disturbing scene: a small boat pursuing and hitting a humpback whale.

A collision with a smaller pleasure boat isn’t likely to be fatal, but whales can be bruised or severely cut by propellers. “We see whales with propeller marks on them quite frequently,” said Paul Sieswerda, executive director of Gotham Whale, a Staten Island-based research and advocacy group.

A study published in 2017 found that of 624 humpback whales spotted in the southern Gulf of Maine over a nine-year period, close to 15% showed evidence of "sharp force trauma": scars from propeller wounds.

Even if the whale is not hit, trailing a marine mammal for hours is not a good idea, said Joshua Meza-Fidalgo, a research associate at the Thorne Lab in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

“If the whale is trying to feed or rest, then following them makes their life more difficult,” he said. And since whales are spending more time around Long Island waters, where there is plenty of boat traffic, they are probably having more encounters with boaters. “If it happens repeatedly, day after day, it could have a long-term impact," he said. 

Whales today must navigate a crowded and noisy ocean, with enormous rumbling ships, seismic surveys, military sonar and an obstacle course of fishing nets and ropes. Boaters who chase after whales looking for Instagram “likes” add to these dangers and stressors. Multiple scientific studies have shown that “the very presence of vessels can negatively affect humpback whale behavior, leading to changes in respiration rate, dive time, swim speed, and short-term displacement,” according to a 2019 paper in the Marine Policy journal.  

Fin whales and humpbacks spend a good part of their time gulping the 1 to 2 tons of tiny krill and small schooling fish they need to consume daily to stay healthy, so a whale that’s been chased for hours could be going hungry. Chasing and crowding also can lead to calves getting separated from their mothers.

Some sport fishers search for schools of menhaden and for humpbacks’ “bubble nets” — which they create to confuse and trap forage fish — guessing that their targets may be lurking there, too. But dropping a fishing line where whales are feeding can have tragic consequences.

In June, researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies in Cape Cod spotted a baby whale, 6 or 7 months old at the time and still nursing, with a monofilament fishing line wrapped lightly around one flipper. The line, strong enough to hold a 140-pound tuna, is cutting into its flesh from both sides so deeply that the flipper may need to be amputated. Disentanglement teams have tried to cut the line without success.

It’s hard to say if the calf can survive such an injury, according to Asmutis-Silvia.

A collision with a whale can be dangerous for boaters, too. An adult humpback is about 40 to 50 feet long — the size of a New York City bus — and weighs 25 to 40 tons. A fin whale is even bigger, at 75 to 85 feet long and 40 to 80 tons.

One video posted to social media shows at least five boats crowding around a humpback whale near Plymouth, Massachusetts, leaving it no path for escape. The whale suddenly hoists itself out of the water and lands hard on the deck of one of the boats. No one was hurt, but some people have been seriously injured in similar incidents.

“I don’t think anyone who wants to see whales is doing so with the intention of causing harm to them,” Asmutis-Silva said. “Who doesn’t think it’s cool to see a whale?” But people do need more education, she said, so they can enjoy watching without endangering the animals or themselves.

Artie Raslich, a photographer for Gotham Whale, suggested that a section on whales should be added to the New York State Boater’s Guide, which offers advice on registration, rules and boating safety — but nothing about safety around marine animals.

NOAA recommends that boaters slow to 10 knots or less in areas where whales have been spotted. If they see a whale, observers should keep at least 100 yards away, not linger more than 30 minutes and not circle around whales or block their path. It’s illegal to get within 500 yards of highly endangered North Atlantic right whales, and mothers with calves especially should be given a wide berth.

If a whale approaches a boat, it’s best to cut the motor and wait for the whale to move away.

Marine experts also advise boaters to steer clear of bubble nets and smooth patches on the surface, a sign that a whale recently has dived there. And never try to feed a whale — or any wildlife.

Those interested in joining a whale watching tour can look for an outfit that follows the Whale Sense protocols, created in partnership with NOAA, which require staff to attend trainings on safe whale watching practices, and to follow and educate passengers about NOAA’s guidelines.

“We love the whales and other marine animals in our backyard,” said Montello, of the New York Marine Rescue Center, “and it’s how we interact with them that will determine their future.”

Boaters who see someone harassing a whale or other marine animal can report it to NOAA’s hotline: 800-853-1964.

In August, a surveyor for an offshore wind energy company observed two recreational boats pursuing a pair of fin whales off the South Shore of Long Island at high speed. The whales — so streamlined and swift they have been nicknamed the "greyhounds of the sea" — repeatedly zigzagged, but apparently could not get away as the boats chased them for hours. The surveyor reported the boats nearly hit the animals at least three times.

Local marine mammal experts say incidents like this have become more common off Long Island’s shores in recent years as whales spend more time in the region. And they warn that chasing or simply getting too close to a whale can risk serious injury to the whale and to boaters.

Harassment of whales is also illegal. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance” that could injure a marine mammal, including dolphins, seals and sea lions, otters, polar bears and whales. It also bans acts that can “disturb” an animal “by disrupting behavioral patterns,” including “migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

Violators can face seizure of their boat, civil penalties up to $34,457 as well as criminal fines, and up to a year in prison.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Harassment of whales has become more common off Long Island’s shores in recent years as they spend more time in the region, according to marine mammal experts.
  • Chasing or getting too close to a whale can risk serious injury to it and to boaters, experts warn.
  • The harassment is illegal, and violators can face seizure of their boat, civil penalties up to $34,457, as well as criminal fines and up to a year in prison.

$34,457

The amount in civil penalties one can face for harassing a whale, in addition to criminal fines, seizure of one's vessel and up to a year in prison.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency charged with enforcing the law, patrols 4 million square miles of the vast ocean, and experts suspect most incidents are neither witnessed nor reported.

NOAA's records show five cases in which boaters were fined for harassing whales in 2022 and the first eight months of 2023. The incidents occurred throughout the agency's jurisdiction — from Alaska to the Pacific Islands and from Maine to Florida.

“If you have changed the behavior of the animal, you are far too close,” said Maxine Montello, rescue program director for New York Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead. “We encourage everyone to observe from a safe distance and not cause any stress to these animals.”

If you have changed the behavior of the animal, you are far too close.

Maxine Montello, rescue program director for New York Marine Rescue Center

More whales, more human encounters 

An adult humpback whale starts to breach as seen from...

An adult humpback whale starts to breach as seen from a Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island whale watching cruise off the coast of Massachusetts in 2009.  Credit: Richard Slattery

Several whale species — including North Atlantic right whales, fin, humpback, minke, pilot and sperm whales — have migrated along the East Coast for millenniums, usually traveling north to Canada in the summer, and back down to their calving grounds in more tropical waters for the winter. Most were hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, the discovery in the late 1960s by the biologist Roger Payne that humpbacks use ethereal, musical calls to communicate with their pods, and his 1970 surprise hit album, “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” inspired a worldwide campaign to save the whales. An international moratorium on commercial whaling that took effect in 1986 led to a slow, partial recovery for some species.

But it’s only in the past decade or so that whales have begun to linger in the area from Cape May to Montauk. The whales are here because Atlantic menhaden are here, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America. Menhaden are a favorite forage fish for whales, especially humpbacks. But overfishing — largely for commercial fish-oil supplements and fertilizers — had reduced their numbers by 90% by the early years of this century. Better fishery management practices, notably a limit placed on menhaden catches in 2012, have helped their populations rebound; healthier populations and warming waters have drawn more menhaden and therefore more whales to the area. 

The dead whales that have washed ashore on local beaches in greater numbers recently are often casualties of container or tanker ship strikes, one of the leading causes of whale deaths along the Eastern Seaboard. At least 17 whales have washed up in the New York-New Jersey area this year, marking a record number of dead whales in the region.

Still, “it’s not just large ships that are hitting whales,” says Arthur Kopelman, a marine biologist and president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. Smaller pleasure boats also have struck whales, causing varying degrees of injury.

Several marine mammal experts said reckless behavior by recreational boaters and even those riding personal watercraft is common anywhere whales are found. Humpbacks may be especially at risk, because they spend time closer to shore, and because their acrobatic leaping is thrilling to watch.

Kopelman said passengers aboard a whale watching vessel last summer witnessed a disturbing scene: a small boat pursuing and hitting a humpback whale.

A collision with a smaller pleasure boat isn’t likely to be fatal, but whales can be bruised or severely cut by propellers. “We see whales with propeller marks on them quite frequently,” said Paul Sieswerda, executive director of Gotham Whale, a Staten Island-based research and advocacy group.

A study published in 2017 found that of 624 humpback whales spotted in the southern Gulf of Maine over a nine-year period, close to 15% showed evidence of "sharp force trauma": scars from propeller wounds.

15%

The percentage of humpback whales spotted in the southern Gulf of Maine that showed evidence of "sharp force trauma," according to a 2017 study.

Even if the whale is not hit, trailing a marine mammal for hours is not a good idea, said Joshua Meza-Fidalgo, a research associate at the Thorne Lab in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

“If the whale is trying to feed or rest, then following them makes their life more difficult,” he said. And since whales are spending more time around Long Island waters, where there is plenty of boat traffic, they are probably having more encounters with boaters. “If it happens repeatedly, day after day, it could have a long-term impact," he said. 

Consequences to whales, humans

Scars from propeller cuts can be seen on a humpback whale...

Scars from propeller cuts can be seen on a humpback whale known as "Jerry" in 2014 off Long Beach. Credit: Gotham Whale/Artie Raslich

Whales today must navigate a crowded and noisy ocean, with enormous rumbling ships, seismic surveys, military sonar and an obstacle course of fishing nets and ropes. Boaters who chase after whales looking for Instagram “likes” add to these dangers and stressors. Multiple scientific studies have shown that “the very presence of vessels can negatively affect humpback whale behavior, leading to changes in respiration rate, dive time, swim speed, and short-term displacement,” according to a 2019 paper in the Marine Policy journal.  

Fin whales and humpbacks spend a good part of their time gulping the 1 to 2 tons of tiny krill and small schooling fish they need to consume daily to stay healthy, so a whale that’s been chased for hours could be going hungry. Chasing and crowding also can lead to calves getting separated from their mothers.

Some sport fishers search for schools of menhaden and for humpbacks’ “bubble nets” — which they create to confuse and trap forage fish — guessing that their targets may be lurking there, too. But dropping a fishing line where whales are feeding can have tragic consequences.

In June, researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies in Cape Cod spotted a baby whale, 6 or 7 months old at the time and still nursing, with a monofilament fishing line wrapped lightly around one flipper. The line, strong enough to hold a 140-pound tuna, is cutting into its flesh from both sides so deeply that the flipper may need to be amputated. Disentanglement teams have tried to cut the line without success.

It’s hard to say if the calf can survive such an injury, according to Asmutis-Silvia.

A collision with a whale can be dangerous for boaters, too. An adult humpback is about 40 to 50 feet long — the size of a New York City bus — and weighs 25 to 40 tons. A fin whale is even bigger, at 75 to 85 feet long and 40 to 80 tons.

40 to 80 tons

The weight of an adult fin whale, which can also grow to 75 to 85 feet long.

One video posted to social media shows at least five boats crowding around a humpback whale near Plymouth, Massachusetts, leaving it no path for escape. The whale suddenly hoists itself out of the water and lands hard on the deck of one of the boats. No one was hurt, but some people have been seriously injured in similar incidents.

What to do

“I don’t think anyone who wants to see whales is doing so with the intention of causing harm to them,” Asmutis-Silva said. “Who doesn’t think it’s cool to see a whale?” But people do need more education, she said, so they can enjoy watching without endangering the animals or themselves.

Artie Raslich, a photographer for Gotham Whale, suggested that a section on whales should be added to the New York State Boater’s Guide, which offers advice on registration, rules and boating safety — but nothing about safety around marine animals.

NOAA recommends that boaters slow to 10 knots or less in areas where whales have been spotted. If they see a whale, observers should keep at least 100 yards away, not linger more than 30 minutes and not circle around whales or block their path. It’s illegal to get within 500 yards of highly endangered North Atlantic right whales, and mothers with calves especially should be given a wide berth.

100 yards

The minimum distance observers should keep from whales, according to NOAA.

If a whale approaches a boat, it’s best to cut the motor and wait for the whale to move away.

Marine experts also advise boaters to steer clear of bubble nets and smooth patches on the surface, a sign that a whale recently has dived there. And never try to feed a whale — or any wildlife.

Those interested in joining a whale watching tour can look for an outfit that follows the Whale Sense protocols, created in partnership with NOAA, which require staff to attend trainings on safe whale watching practices, and to follow and educate passengers about NOAA’s guidelines.

“We love the whales and other marine animals in our backyard,” said Montello, of the New York Marine Rescue Center, “and it’s how we interact with them that will determine their future.”

Boaters who see someone harassing a whale or other marine animal can report it to NOAA’s hotline: 800-853-1964.

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New contractor hired for Bethpage drums ... Blue Angels on LI ... What's Up on LI Credit: Newsday

Updated 4 minutes ago Newsday/Sienna College poll ... Avalon Bay apartments in Amityville ... JFK travel this weekend ... Summer concert preview

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