Humpbacks are invading New York City!
Humpbacks are invading New York City! A humpback whale breaks through the surface of the Atlantic Ocean just off a beach on the Rockaway peninsula near New York City (AP photos / Wildlife Conservation Society / Gotham Whale)
Humpbacks are invading New York City!
Lexile: 1310L

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Maybe they want to sing on Broadway.

Humpback whales, the gigantic, endangered mammals known for their haunting underwater songs, have been approaching New York City in greater numbers than even old salts can remember.

Naturalists aboard whale-watching boats have seen humpbacks in the Atlantic Ocean within a mile of the Rockaway peninsula, part of New York's borough of Queens, within sight of Manhattan's skyscrapers.

"It is truly remarkable, within miles of the Empire State Building, to have one of the largest and most charismatic species ever to be on this planet," said Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Ocean Giants program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Humpbacks were spotted 87 times from the boats this year, and by cataloging the whales' markings, at least 19 different humpbacks have been identified in the waters off the city.

Paul Sieswerda, founder of Gotham Whale, which documents the marine mammal population around New York, said reports of humpbacks in the New York Bight, where the city's harbor meets the Atlantic, began to pick up around 2010 from surprised fishermen and other veterans on the water. Gotham Whale then partnered with the American Princess whale-watching boat, providing naturalists who could document the sightings.

The naturalists also do an educational presentation on the boat and answer customers' questions, said Tom Paladino, the boat's captain.

"It was pretty slim pickings at first, actually," Sieswerda said. "We went on many cruises and had three sightings totaling five whales in 2011."

But in 2012, there were 15 sightings; in 2013, 33; and this year there were 87 sightings totaling 106 humpbacks.

Many whales were sighted more than once. By comparing flukes the distinctive shapes and markings of their tails 19 different humpbacks have been documented near the city so far. Customers on the whale-watching tours are asked to share any photos they get of such markings for the "New York City Humpback Whale Catalog."

"This is the way they've been doing it in Maine and Massachusetts, the recognized way to keep track of these whales, study their behavior," Sieswerda said.

It's not clear why humpbacks, which can be 50 feet long and weigh 40 tons, are returning to New York's shores, where they were abundant before they and other whale species were nearly destroyed by whaling.

Rosenbaum said the humpbacks' reappearance could be simply a shift in their habits rather than a spike in population. A greater abundance of menhaden, one of the humpbacks' favorite foods, could have attracted them from farther out in the ocean.

That might be because the water is cleaner.

"One would like to think that some of this has been triggered by an improved environmental ethic," Rosenbaum said. "We have the clean air and clean water acts, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and associated state laws. It's hard to make the link for sure but there's certainly been a behavioral change toward the natural environment."

Sieswerda agreed that various factors are in play but said, "I think it all begins with cleaner water," including the improved Hudson River.

Whatever the cause, humpback populations worldwide are increasing. Counting whales is difficult, but the International Whaling Commission says its latest estimates put the worldwide population at about 150,000. About 11,600 of those are in the Western North Atlantic, which includes the New York Bight off New York City. There might have been just hundreds before whale protection laws were passed.

New Yorkers shouldn't expect to see humpbacks frolicking around the Statue of Liberty. Except for the occasional disoriented calf, the whales generally stay well outside the harbor, beyond the "gate" formed by the Rockaway peninsula in New York and Sandy Hook in New Jersey.

Critical thinking challenge: CTC: Why doesn't the International Whaling Commission know precisely how many whales there are worldwide?

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Assigned 20 times

  • MGregory-Sti
    12/22/2014 - 09:48 a.m.

    I think that the ale surprise the people in New York cuz that state wants that whale out of that ocean because they don't want the whale do to damage.and its huge and may kneed over boats and ships that go on the ocean.

  • MEdgar-Sti
    12/22/2014 - 10:14 a.m.

    I think it would be cool to see a whale from a boat but I would also feel nervous. In case it gets angry and blows the water or tries to jump out. I would have felt kinda strange that their getting close to new York because normally people go there to see big building and artist and not whales.

  • PJuan-Sti
    12/22/2014 - 10:59 a.m.

    Humpbacks invited New Yourk. I think that its not that bad. I Think its really cool that theirs humpbacks around the city. I think that people will go to New Yourk just to see the humpbacks and to have a really good time with there family.

  • RM00charlie
    12/22/2014 - 01:04 p.m.

    scientist don't know how many whales there are in the world because one , earth is 75% water. two, whales swim pretty deep in the ocean , and three how many scientist really want to go that far out into the ocean and count the population of whales knowing all the risks that come.

  • KMartin-Sti
    12/23/2014 - 09:14 a.m.

    This is vary interesting . Some people think its because the water is cleaner. I think part of it is that and there are more and more of them coming to life.

  • CStacey-Sti
    12/23/2014 - 11:05 a.m.

    Hump back whales are invading the waters of New York. I don't think this is a problem . They believe they are doing this because the water is cleaner. if the water is better for them there then where they organially where then I think they should go to where its better.

  • CharismaM
    12/28/2014 - 04:51 p.m.

    Humpbacks migrating to New York might not be such a bad thing. Scientists and Marine Biologists might be able to help the species more and keep them from becoming extinct.

  • TreyvaunT
    1/07/2015 - 09:13 a.m.

    I probably would of had a heart attack if I was swimming and saw a whale pop out of the water. That actually happened to me one time while I was at the beach, I got out of the ocean and went into my hotel room. When I got up there I looked out the window, and exactly where I was swimming was killer whales. Now I'm to scared to get back into the ocean.

  • EW2001blue
    1/12/2015 - 01:04 p.m.

    The International Whaling commission doesn't know how many whales there are world wide because they can only know the amount of whales they tagged and documented. Every whale in the world is not documented so therefore the International whaling commission doesn't know exactly ho0w many whales there are in the world.

  • DD2001green
    1/14/2015 - 08:46 a.m.

    They don't know when a whale is born or when a whale dies. So they cant calculate how many whales are in the world today.

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