A Homecoming For The Whales

8:58 minutes

When you think of New York wildlife, whales probably aren’t the first animals that come to mind — but they’re actually native to the waters around the city. After disappearing from New York waters about a century ago because of pollution and overfishing, the massive animals are returning home.

Video producer Luke Groskin headed out to the New York Bight, the body of water stretching from Montauk to Cape May, to film the whales for Science Friday’s newest Macroscope video. He joined Wildlife Conservation Society scientist Howard Rosenbaum and his team for a scientific whale-watching expedition. The group spotted four whales — two humpback whales, a fin whale and a minke whale. “It was just spectacular,” Groskin says.

To track whale traffic, Rosenbaum and his team use a buoy that detects the sounds made by different whales. “It’s out … between two shipping lanes, right where they’re looking to do some renewable energy development,” Groskin explains. The buoy picks up on whale vocalizations and sends signals back via satellite that can tell scientists what kinds of whales are in the area at any given time.

[In NYC waters, a whale of a tale.]

When the researchers spot a whale, they photograph it, geotag the location where they spotted it and even take a small biopsy. “So, they’re taking a crossbow with a little empty dart at the tip and they fire it into the whale, and they get a little chunk of flesh and they use that to determine the actual identity and the DNA of that animal,” Groskin says. He notes that for the whale, the experience is not particularly painful. “It’s kind of like getting bit by a mosquito,” he says.

In the bight, the whales feed on silvery schooling fish called menhaden, as do other big marine predators. “You have the stripers, you have bluefish, you have albacore tuna, you have a whole ecosystem that’s running off of these menhaden,” Groskin says. “When the whales go barging through them and lunging through them, it’s so dramatic.” All the fish popping on the surface actually make a trickling sound, he adds.

[Why are whales whale-sized, anyway?]

He explains that the abundance of fish is the big reason why whales have returned to New York waters. Menhaden are used as bait by fisherman and harvested for products like fish oil or pet food, but in 2012, catch limits were put in place along the East Coast to cap the menhaden harvest. “The conservationists that I spoke to, they said that probably had a big impact in terms of the resurgence of whales,” Groskin says.

While from the film it’s clear that the whales are doing well in the New York Bight, scientist Howard Rosenbaum is careful to point out that their long-term success there isn’t guaranteed. “Animals getting hit by ships are of great concern, the noise associated with shipping and other activities is of great concern,” he explains in the video. “As there are more menhaden, are those fisheries regulated and monitored well enough to make sure that those stocks don’t get depleted? What happens in a changing climate? We have to try to figure out how to protect these animals in light of some of these activities that are either ongoing or projected.”

But for now, the whales are homecoming royalty — although many New Yorkers still don’t know they’re back. “On some level, it’s a little depressing because you have, you know, the five boroughs of people that again, when they think about wildlife,” Groskin says, pausing. “It’s a pigeon with a bagel or a pizza or something,” adds Science Friday host Ira Flatow.

“And meanwhile, literally 10 miles offshore or even less, within sight of the shore, you have these National Geographic, BBC-style spectacles of animal behavior that you thought you could only see on TV,” Groskin says. “But if you go out on a whale-watching boat — and you don’t have to go out to Montauk, and you don’t have to go out to Cape Cod — you can actually see these things, and it’s absolutely incredible.”

—Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

Segment Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] IRA FLATOW: Here’s a question for you. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say wildlife in New York City? Raccoons? Squirrels? Rats on the subway tracks? Now, what if we told you that one of the largest mammals on Earth lives very close to the Statue of Liberty. I’m talking about the magnificent whale, of course.

Now, whales disappeared from New York’s waters about a century ago due to pollution and overfishing. But now they are making a comeback. But what is bringing them back? And how can we protect these new residents?

Joining us now to discuss this and our newest macroscope video about the whales of New York is our video producer, Luke Groskin. Welcome back, Luke.


IRA FLATOW: You went out and saw these whales.

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. We went out to the New York Bight, which is a stretch of water that goes from Montauk, Long Island, to Cape May, New Jersey, which is the far end of New Jersey. We saw about four whales, two humpback whales, a fin whale, and a minke whale. And it was just spectacular.

IRA FLATOW: And it wasn’t just you out there. Right? There were scientists who were studying these whales. Why? What exactly are they looking for?

LUKE GROSKIN: Sure, so I and a couple of Science Friday radio producers went out with a conservation scientist named Howard Rosenbaum. He works for the Wildlife Conservation Society. And he and a team of conservationist scientists, they’re getting IDs on whales. They’re getting photo IDs. They’re getting geotagging where the sightings are actually occurring.

And they’re also getting biopsies of these whales. So they’re taking a crossbow with a little empty dart at the tip. And they fire it into the whale, and they get a little chunk of flesh. And then they use that to determine the actual identity and the DNA of that animal.

And if that sounds really exciting, it really, really was. And in fact, our radio producers put together a little audio postcard of what this whole experience was like.


– So we’re headed out into Great South Bay. And then we’re going to go look for whales and start our whale surveys.

– There’s something. Can you guys see anything?

– No.

– Right over here I just saw something.

– That’s menhaden. That’s what the whales were feeding on, locally known as bunker.

– Looks like there’s something bigger.

– Yeah, no, no, there’s definitely something bigger.

– So keep an eye out for a blow, a body part, some water that breaks, something. If you see something, say something.

– It’s up, belly up.

– Yep. It’s coming up right in front of you, right at 12. It’s coming right over to this break. Go, Jim. Go, go, go. Go, go, go, Jim, go, go, go.

– Do we know how big this one is?

– We haven’t gotten close enough. But we could certainly identify the species, you know, the characteristic blow, where the position of the dorsal fin was.


– Whoa!

– See him? See the white?

– Yeah, I see him.

– I’m not shooting too close.


Safety is off.

– No reaction.

– No reaction. That’s the blubber. I’m not going to touch it. But you can see the epidermis. That’s the little black right there. And that’s the start of the blubber layer. And at the bottom of the dart, there’ll be a little bit of skin. That’s what we’ll use. Pretty amazing close approach by that animal. Came to check us out, right alongside the boat. That has not happened yet this season. So it’s a banner day. Three species of large whales in one day, dolphins, and a shark. You guys are having quite the day.


IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Sounds like a real adventure on water.

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Are the researchers tracking these whales? Is that what this is about?

LUKE GROSKIN: They’re not tracking these specific whales. But there is a buoy that’s set up about– it’s out in the middle between two shipping lanes, right where they are looking to do some renewable energy development. And they put this buoy out there. And any time a whale makes a vocalization, the buoy picks up on it and sends a signal back to a satellite. And then you can actually see what whales are in the area at any given time and what species they are.

IRA FLATOW: There was a mention of a fish called Manhattan there.


IRA FLATOW: Menhaden. And it’s like the whales were saying, I’ll take menhaden, because that’s what they’d like to eat there.

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, that’s their primary source of prey there. And all these other species are actually eating that too. You have the stripers. You have bluegills, blue fish. You have albacore tuna. You have a whole ecosystem that’s running off of these menhaden. And when the whales go barging through them and lunging through them, it’s so dramatic.

And in fact, when you heard that, like, trickling sound, that’s the sound of the fish popping on the surface. They’re just like football fields.

IRA FLATOW: Thousands of them.


IRA FLATOW: Millions of them.

LUKE GROSKIN: Millions of them. And they’re a wonderful spectacle in and of themselves.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Luke Groskin about their adventure with the whales. And around New York City, it’s hard to believe it. So the fish have come back, and that’s why the whales have come back?

LUKE GROSKIN: Exactly, exactly. You don’t get the whales without the fish. And that’s really the result of decades of environmental legislation. You have the Endangered Species Act, which allows the whales to recover from whaling back in the last century. You have the Clean Water Act, which makes it easier for the spawning fish at the heads of rivers to actually thrive. And then you have proper fisheries management, where they’re not taking that many of these fish.

These menhaden are actually bait fish. They’re used for bait by other fishermen. Or they’re turned into cat food or fish oil pellets. And in about 2012, 2013, there was a reduction in the actual take on these fish. And the conservationists that I spoke to, they said that probably had a big impact in terms of the resurgence of whales. And now you have these amazing spectacles. And the choice becomes, what happens if the menhaden goes away?

IRA FLATOW: So you have these tour boats of tourists going out to watch the whales. But how far? How close can you get to them? Is there a law about that?

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, there is. You can’t just go out in a boat and go approaching whales. That’s against the law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prevents that.

That said, if you’re out there, and you’re a fisherman looking for stripers and albacore or something like that, and these animals are eating the menhaden, if you go at the right time of year, you’re going to see some amazing spectacles of whales. They’re back. You can’t really miss them. They’re all over.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think any New Yorkers really know about this yet?



LUKE GROSKIN: No. On some level, it’s a little depressing because you have– the five boroughs of people, again, when they think about wildlife, you know–

IRA FLATOW: It’s a pigeon with a bagel or a pizza or something like that.

LUKE GROSKIN: Exactly. And meanwhile, literally 10 miles offshore, or even less, within sight of the shore, you have these National Geographic, BBC-style spectacles of animal behavior that you thought you could only see on TV. But if you go out on a whale watching boat– and you don’t have to go out to Montauk. And you don’t have to go out to Cape Cod. You can actually see these things. And it’s absolutely incredible.

IRA FLATOW: What was your favorite moment? Do you have a favorite moment while you were out there?

LUKE GROSKIN: I think it was when we first saw the minke whale. Minke whale, we were just looking at these menhaden. And all of a sudden, you just see this dorsal fin just swoosh through the menhaden. And the menhaden actually create this kind of pressure wave, the shockwave of them trying to get out of the way. And it’s the first time you see the whale. And it’s just absolutely thrilling, maybe 100 meters off the side of our boat, and just absolutely stunning. I never thought I would actually get to see that sort of predatory feeding behavior from a whale, especially around New York City.

IRA FLATOW: Did you get the impression that the whale knew you were there?

LUKE GROSKIN: I don’t think they care when they’re that hungry.

IRA FLATOW: Did they signal or anything like that?

LUKE GROSKIN: It’s like having an all-you-can-eat buffet. They don’t care who else is in the restaurant. They’re hungry.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re not slapping their flukes at you or anything like that?

LUKE GROSKIN: Well, they did slap their flukes after they got hit with the biopsy dart. But I mean, the size of the whale, I mean, it’s kind of like getting bit by a mosquito, or getting your ear flicked. It doesn’t actually harm them. And they definitely slapped the surface of the water. And it’s very dramatic. And you can see that, actually, in the video.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I think maybe more people will learn about these amazing creatures. Maybe some New Yorkers will say, hey, let’s go out and take a look after watching your video out there.

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, it’s an opportunity for people in New York to really take some pride in the wildlife around them. You don’t associate that with New York City. But I mean, I think this is something that people can really get behind.

IRA FLATOW: And you don’t have to go anywhere very far. Luke Groskin is our video producer. And you can check out his whale video on our website at sciencefriday.com/whales. Thank you, Luke.

LUKE GROSKIN: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: I’m jealous.

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Meet the Producer

About Sushmita Pathak

Sushmita Pathak was Science Friday’s fall 2017 radio intern. She recently graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and majored in electronics and communication engineering in college. She sometimes misses poring over circuit diagrams.

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