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Thar she blows! Whale sightings on the rise off Long Island

A humpback whale spotted Sunday in the Atlantic

A humpback whale spotted Sunday in the Atlantic Ocean east of the Moriches Inlet. Photo Credit: Michael Ziccardi

There's a sea change off the waters of Long Island.

A growing number of residents are documenting close encounters, including some as close as a mile off shore, with humpback whales, according to marine biologists and scientists.

In recent days, whales have been seen feeding in the Atlantic Ocean off Shinnecock Inlet and off Moriches Inlet. The enormous mammals have also been spotted off Montauk, in Long Island Sound, and in the waters off Jones Beach, experts said.

Biologists attribute the increased sightings to federal regulations that better protect marine life, cleaner local waterways, and the restoration of menhaden, a fish in the herring family that is an essential part of the whale's diet.

"This may be our new normal," said Arthur Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island in West Sayville, which reported sightings of 58 different whales on Long Island's waters last year. 

Michael Ziccardi of Fort Solanga was fishing with his two sons, Vincent, 15, and Dominick, 12, on Sunday afternoon in 50 feet of water off Moriches Inlet when a humpback whale began chasing pods of bunker — also known as menhaden — next to his vessel.

"It was absolutely amazing," said Ziccardi, who owns a sign manufacturing company in Huntington. "There was so much adrenaline while being terrified all in one. Such an awesome experience."

The close encounters continued Tuesday morning as Chris Spies of Holbrook was fishing for tuna about 30 miles off Shinnecock Inlet and spotted two massive cetaceans feeding on sand eels. The humpbacks quickly approached, and nearly bumped up against, Spies' boat while floating on their backs with mouths wide open, according to video posted on Facebook and Instagram.

"I wasn't really worried about my boat but thought I might have to buff out some spots," if one of the whales brushed up against it, Spies said. "It was a very cool experience."

Robert DiGiovanni Jr., founder and chief scientist of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in Hampton Bays, said the whales in the two videos are following the available food supply and are likely not cognizant of the boats.

"It's like bumping into people while in line at the buffet," said DiGiovanni, who urged boaters to keep their distance from the whales, which can weigh 20 to 30 tons and are able to propel their bodies two-thirds the way out of the waters. "They may not even be aware of their surroundings."

Biologists point to a multitude of reasons for more sightings, including the increased use of smartphone cameras that allow users to rapidly spread images on social media.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed in 1972, has significantly helped repopulate the humpback population — once nearly hunted into extinction — and now number at an estimated 12,000 in the western northern Atlantic, Kopelman said. 

Local waterways have also seen an infusion of menhaden, a bait fish considered instrumental to restoring whales, dolphins, striped bass, coastal sharks and bluefish to the region's waters. A bill signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in April prohibited the commercial use of an industrial fishing net, known as purse seines, that measure as large as six city blocks and held down by weights at the bottom, that draw closed around the fish.

Humpbacks have also been dying at abnormally high rates since 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A 37-foot humpback was found stranded in Westhampton in May with skull fractures and extensive bruising, likely after striking a vessel, officials said.

Since 2016, 93 humpbacks have beached along the Atlantic Coast, including 17 in New York, according to National Marine Fisheries Service.

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