In NYC Waters, A Whale Of A Tale

After decades of absence, whales are back in New York City waters. Scientists say it could signal a wildlife resurgence.

If you bait them, the whales will come.

Vast schools—sometimes as big as a football field—of the menhaden baitfish are swimming in the New York Bight, and they’ve lured some unexpected visitors into the waters just a few miles from downtown Manhattan. Numerous whale species have returned to the Bight to feed on the menhaden, and although they haven’t set foot—er, fin—in New York’s waters for decades, some scientists say their return signals a wildlife resurgence.

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“What we’re seeing now, in essence from important environmental legislation—whether was the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, good fisheries management–all of these things, at some level, acting in concert with one another have certainly allowed for us to have this amazing wildlife spectacle occur right here in the New York Bight,” says Howard Rosenbaum, senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Most of the whales, like the Humpback and the North Atlantic right whale, are seasonally migrating. But other species, like the Fin whale, are spending more time in the Bight than expected. Now, scientists are employing a range of scientific tools and approaches to protect them.

[Why are whales whale-sized, anyway?]

One of those methods involves using a crossbow to shoot a hollow-tipped dart into the epidermis of the whale in order to collect tissue samples for genetic analysis. (Don’t worry; it feels like getting bitten by a mosquito to the whale.) From those samples, scientists can learn everything from the sex of the whale, to its population or individual identity. Scientists also learn about the whales using boat-based surveys and real-time acoustic monitoring buoys.

“I think there’s a great opportunity for the residents and denizens of the greater New York City area to take pride in this and to get behind all of this,” says Rosenbaum. “One of the most amazing, wonderful experiences that you could ever imagine.”

See for yourself, with these images of whales and marine life in the waters just off New York.

[These whales are the “engineers” of the ocean ecosystem.]

A pair of humpback whales. Credit: Image taken under NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 14809.

A pod of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Credit: Image taken under NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 14809.

The underside of the flukes of a diving humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Image taken under NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 14809.

A leaping bottlenose dolphin. Credit: Image taken under NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 14809.

A humpback whale slapping its tail on the surface (an activity called lobtailing). Credit: Image taken under NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 14809.

Meet the Writer

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a digital producer at Science Friday. When she’s not obsessively checking SciFri’s digital pages, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

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