2013-09-27 / Community

Whale, Whale, Whale, What Do We Have Here!

By Katie McFadden

Your eyes aren’t fooling you if you’ve been down to the beach over the past two weeks. It looks like Rockaway has some new visitors that are causing quite the commotion in the Atlantic Ocean. Humpback whales have been spotted close to shore on numerous occasions in local waters.

“I think Rockaway is going to be the new Cape Cod,” Tom Paladino, owner of whale watching tour company American Princess Cruises said. After a successful summer and a few active weekends in the late season, it seems as if Rockaway has become a new hotspot for humpbacks. There’s no need to head to Alaska or even to Cape Cod to catch a glimpse of the giant sea mammals in their natural environment. Rockaway’s waters are even better than a visit to SeaWorld as of late.

Summer may officially be over but plenty of whales have shown that they’re not quite ready to leave the beach. Unlike the unfortunate event of a finback whale beaching itself along the bay in Breezy Point in December, the humpbacks seem to be alive and well as they’ve engaged in behavior such as lunge feeding, breaching, tail slapping and more, leaving residents in awe as they watch from jet skis, whale watching boats and even the shoreline.

The presence of the whales has even led Paladino to believe that the ocean may be healthier. “The state of the ocean is just getting better,” he said. Despite what remnants of Rockaway Hurricane Sandy may have pulled into the ocean, including possibly Rockaway’s very own whale mascot, Whalemina, the whales don’t seem to mind as long as there is an abundance of good eats. On the local menu— bunker. Paladino says that since the state of the ocean has improved, there is more bunker for the whales to munch on and they’re not shy about their table manners.

Resident Fallon Mullen agrees that the ocean may be in better shape. “The more marine life, the healthier our waters must be,” she said. Fallon Mullen was featured in last week’s Wave cover photo as she and her sister Siobhan Mullen got an up-close look at Rockaway’s new neighbors while paddle boarding.

They were paddle boarding between Beach 108th Street and Beach 86th Street when some of the whales got, what some might consider, too close for comfort as they were just a few yards away. However for the Mullens, the experience was more thrilling than frightening. “I was healthily scared that he might breach from under one of us but honestly I was more mesmerized by it,” Fallon Mullen said. “I felt privileged to be that close to them in their natural habitat,” Siobhan Mullen said. “It was really just pretty amazing and humbling.”

Rockaway resident Bobby Leonard, along with his father and his brother, Mike, got an even closer view from a 23- foot boat. They were able to capture a stunning moment on camera for others to see. A video shared by Leonard on Facebook shows a ginormous hump back whale coming right up out of the water to take in a mouthful of fish. Leonard says it was so close that the men got splashed.

After seeing the whales right from the beach, Leonard set out on his boat to get a closer look. Despite the whales feeding five feet away from the vessel, Leonard says the close encounter wasn’t nearly close enough. “The closer the better,” Leonard said, adding that he would go as far as jumping right in the water with them. However the idea of getting bitten by a blue fish kept him on board.

A humpback whale’s size isn’t something to take lightly. According to Arthur Kopelman, president of Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, humpback whales can grow up to 55 feet and can weigh up to 70,000 pounds. He says that New York’s whales are part of the “Gulf of Maine stock, which winter in the Caribbean for calving and mating, and spend the summer here and up into the Gulf of Maine and nearby areas.” Kopelman says there are about 850 whales that are part of the Gulf of Maine stock.

Photos by Laura Deckelman, Margaret Kelly, Marta Malave and Fallon Mullen Photos by Laura Deckelman, Margaret Kelly, Marta Malave and Fallon Mullen While getting an up-close look may be thrilling, Rob DiGiovanni, executive director for the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, said that it’s best for people to keep their distance as to not harass the animals. He said that humpback whales are considered to be endangered and are protected by law. “People should not harass the animals and not get close,” DiGiovanni said. He advises to stay at least 50 yards away from the animals and “observe them from a distance.” While the Riverhead Foundation often deals with the rescue of stranded animals, DiGiovanni encourages people to report sightings of healthy creatures as well to RiverheadFoundation.org or by calling 631-369-9829.

Kopelman says that harassing the whales can cost big bucks. Being endangered, the whales are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Under the MMPA, “harassment is essentially defined as anything that causes a significant change in behavior, and harassment can lead to fines of $10,000 per incident,” Kopelman said. He advises keeping an even further distance of 100 yards away.

One of the safe ways to observe them, while still getting a good view, is by taking a trip on the American Princess. Paladino and the rest of the crew keep a respectable distance from the animals, unless the whales choose to get close on their own. “They’re very playful,” Paladino said. “I believe they know the boat. They’ll get close and feed and breach or roll right next to us.”

With the abundance of whales, Paladino has extended the tour season and will continue for as long as possible. “If the whales stay around, we will go right into the end of the season,” he said. The boat sails at noon for a four hour tour from Riis Landing, near the Marine Parkway Bridge. With the exception of October 5th, the tours may continue every Saturday and Sunday until the end of October. Tickets may be purchased at AmericanPrincessCruises.com.

While many are enjoying being able to watch the whales from any distance, Leonard acknowledges that they’re bad news for fishermen. “Some fishermen aren’t too happy because they eat the bait fish,” Leonard, who is also an active fisherman, said. “But it’s still nice to see.” While some say the ocean may be getting cleaner, Leonard offered another explanation for the whales’ presence.

Down in North Carolina and Virginia, bunker, or menhaden, are harvested to produce Omega-3 fish oil. Leonard says one of the “bunker moratoriums” opened within the last two years, so he believes the fish have traveled further up north to avoid the area. The whales seem to be taking advantage of the abundant food source further up north before they head to more southern waters. “This is the time of year that some of the humpbacks begin their migration towards the tropics,” Kopelman said.

While the whales are still around, Leonard and others will continue to take advantage of this unique opportunity to see them. “Where else can you go in New York where you can watch whales on the beach in the morning and then hop in the car to go to work in Manhattan after?” Leonard said. “It feels like you’re on vacation right off the beach.”

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