2016-07-08 / Weekender

Gotham Whale: Close Encounters with Nature

By Patricia Hannan

Yes, you can take a local summer “staycation” and immerse yourself literally in another environment that is oft-secluded, save for dolphins and whales.

Summer vacation travelers usually pay hefty fees—hundreds of dollar per person—to board a cruise and sail out into the ocean, but the complete steal of a deal is practically right in our Rockaway backyard.

Guaranteed to be a cheaper price than other lines is the four-hour adventure cruise aboard the American Princess vessel, which departs only minutes from Rockaway in Riis Landing. Like the larger luxury lines, the vessel also glides out of New York City and into the Atlantic, but with a bonus of dolphin and whale sighting and watching.

“Rockaway is the new Cape Cod for whale watching,” Captain Tom Paladino announced, at the helm in his spacious cabin. Paladino confirmed that he is from Rockaway. One of the many computer screens in Paladino’s cabin showed a large digital numeral in constant fluctuation between 60 and 62.

Photos by Artie Raslich Photos by Artie Raslich “That means we’ve got 62 feet of water below us right now,” Captain Paladino explained. On this particular day, Thursday, June 30, the captain, The Wave, and almost 100 others got lucky on the way out to sea.

Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of dolphins were seen, swimming and even jumping out of the water, from every side of the vessel. Especially distinctive moments standing a railing away from the ocean were when a humpback whale was seen (many times) swimming alongside the dolphins, in a pack. The dolphins were seen for over 20 minutes, often breathing by rising to the top of the water and spurting air from their blowhole, and were quite visible a mere few hundred feet away from the boat.

In the shadow of the World Trade Center, overlooking Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building, the humpback whale and dolphin friends emptied and refilled their lungs in a fraction of a second. The explosive blow of air is said to reach up to 100 miles per hour. After the mammals breathe, their blowholes quickly close up by muscles that prevent drowning.

“It resembles steam on the top of a tea kettle,” Gotham Whale’s Catherine Granton shared with the group. “The populations and number of sightings of humpback whales and dolphins in this area are growing,” she added. Recent cleanings of the local waters in the past decade have attracted more and more of the aquatic wildlife. The mammals live off blubber in the Caribbean during the winter and “once it hits spring, they come here to feast. They eat and eat and eat and eat,” Granton said, “and they go as far up the coast as Nova Scotia.”

Captain Paladino and Granton undergo intense training and certification to ensure “responsible sightings.” Wildlife ethics calls for maintaining “a respectful distance when observing the marine animals” in their natural habitat, Granton mentioned. This issue is particularly important to Rockaway, as the animals and jet skiers may come in close contact with each other.

Paul Siewswerda, founder of Gotham Whale, joined forces with instructors Granton, Dr. Merryl Kafka, and wildlife photographer Artie Raslich to connect New Yorkers with marine wildlife in their natural habitat.

Gotham Whale’s dolphin and whale watching cruises aboard the American Princess vessel sail from Riis Landing at the intersection of State Road and Heinzelman Road, right before the entrance to Breezy Point. A snack bar is available on the vessel and reservations are encouraged.

For more information, visit americanprincesscruises.com or call 718-474-0555. For more information on Gotham Whale, visit www.gotham whale.org or @gothamwhale on Instagram.

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