whale

NOAA's Take on the Hudson Humpback

The humpback whale that’s been cruising the Hudson River likely got lost after chasing baitfish, according to NOAA experts.

There’s probably not enough food upriver, and chances are the whale is ‘lost,’ said Jennifer Goebel, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region.

It doesn’t appear to be in danger, so NOAA doesn’t plan to intervene at this time.  

But that could change if the health of the animal declines, or if the location ends up posing a danger, Goebel said, acknowledging that the whale is certainly a hazard to navigation in busy New York Harbor.

The whale is likely a juvenile or a young adult, and concerns about it ‘missing its migration’ are unfounded, Goebel said.

While adult animals move to tropical breeding grounds in the winter, younger whales don’t always make the entire journey because they’re not reproductively active, and there’s less for them to eat down there.

Indeed, there’s some evidence that a number of juveniles overwinter in the mid-Atlantic, where they continue to feed and grow, Goebel said.

Even adult humpbacks have been reported to migrate later in the season, remaining off New York and New Jersey into late fall, and overwintering in the mid-Atlantic, she added.

There are 14 subtypes of humpback, and it’s not clear which one this whale belongs to. Four subpopulations are endangered, and one is threatened, but none of these live in the coastal waters off North America.

While the North Atlantic humpback population was estimated to bottom-out at 700 animals between 1865 and 1980, today NOAA estimates that there are 12,000 humpbacks swimming through its waters at any given time.

Many New Yorkers will be anxiously waiting to see if this animal finds his way back to his flourishing population.

Humpback Whale in New York Harbor: Monday 11/21 Update

Gale-force winds gusting 40 knots stirred up the harbor, making it difficult to locate the whale's occasional spout among whitecaps everywhere. Despite recent reports "off the Statue," "at the 1 Bouy" and "north of Governors Island," it took us over an hour to find the mammal. We finally spotted it south of Governors Island right around slack tide.

The whale swam west, crossing the shipping lane, and began surface feeding just east of the Statue of Liberty. Due to the adverse weather conditions we didn't see the whale as much as on previous days, making its path much less predictable.

Marine Mammal Researcher Kristi Ashley Collum from the American Museum of Natural History, who also collaborates with Gotham Whale, joined us on the escort. Kristi deployed a hydrophone off the boat to record the whale's vocalizations. 

For about an hour the whale swam in a north-south pattern along a 0.3-nautical mile transect of a shoal, surfacing about once a minute.

At 3:30pm the whale headed south towards the Jersey Flats and we returned to port.

Humpback Whale in New York Harbor: Day 3

At noon we set out with hopes of locating the whale again. Early that morning, it was seen south of the Statue, a friend later reported it by North Cove Marina. With an incoming tide we reasoned that the flood would carry it upriver just like the previous day. At 1:20pm, Kristina spotted the whale just north of 79th Street Boat Basin on the Manhattan side of the Hudson River. The FDNY fireboat 'Bravest' was also in the area and the whale surfaced quite close to their vessel.

It was significantly less active than the previous day -- we timed 1 to 2 minute breathing intervals and the whale was was cruising slowly, only occasionally lifting its tail out of the water.

Earlier that morning we spoke with a researcher who has been documenting and cataloging whales in the New York Bight for years. He wants to identify this individual and said to pay special attention to the white pigmentation under the flukes. The color, pattern, ridges and scars act as unique identifiers. Photos will help determine if just one or multiple whales are being sighted in the Upper Bay. The first photo is the underside and the second photo the top side of the same tail.

Trying to estimate its size, we checked the Simrad structure-scan/sonar and were amazed by the image!

It seemed there was less fish in the area than yesterday. Only once did we observe surface feeding.

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As flood changed to ebb, the current carried us and the whale south again. Floating with the engines in idle for hours, only occasionally making small course corrections to avoid anchored barges. The most incredible experience of the day was when the whale surfaced just next to the boat. It was a huge surprise, since we were careful to maintain at least a 100 yard distance at all times.

Today the whale hugged the Manhattan side as it travelled downriver at 3-4 knots.

It passed within feet of the cruise ship terminal.

Then it picked up speed, moving past Hudson Yards and Chelsea Piers at 7 knots.

At the Whitney Museum of American Art, it showed its tail again.

 Finally, as the sun set, the whale made its way south towards the Verrazano Bridge. We hope it will find its way back to the ocean soon.

Humpback Whale in New York Harbor: Day 2

Captain Eric and I set out around 10am to see if the whale was still in New York Harbor. There were no recent confirmed reports. Someone said they may have seen something off Chelsea Piers, another unconfirmed report came from Hoboken and 34th Street. We started our search in the Deepwater Range, where we saw it last the previous night and cruised up the North River at 4 knots. Around 1pm a workboat in the vicinity of the George Washington Bridge reported the whale surfacing. We got there quickly and started tracking the whale again, keeping a safe distance to the mammal.

The whale had swum north with the flood, and as the tide switched to ebb it changed direction and headed back towards downtown.

NOAA's Humpback whale approach regulations call for a distance of 100 yards, slow speed, and to not place a vessel into the path of the whale. New York Harbor is teeming with tugs, barges, ferries and other commercial traffic so once again we decided to just stay with it, and coordinate with oncoming traffic in hopes of providing safe passage for the whale.

Most professional captains appreciated our guidance and steered clear of the whale. Around 3pm the whale started moving in an east-west pattern and began breaching. Fish jumped out of the water in a last attempt to get away.

Note the distinctive bumps on the whales head. Each bump is a hair follicle and researchers suspect they help the whale detect density of fish while feeding.

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At dawn the whale was lobtailing -- slapping the water repeatedly with the tail, some scientists believe it to be a non-verbal form of communication, or part of the feeding ritual, stunning fish or driving them closer together.

As the sun set, we lost visual contact to the whale and updated the US Coast Guard to its last location so ships can be advised to be extra vigilant and operate at a safe speed in the area.

Check back later for video of the whale feeding.

Humpback Whale in New York Harbor

Passengers aboard our Adventure Sightseeing Tour got to see the newest attraction in New York Harbor! A whale made its way up the Hudson and was spotted off the Statue of Liberty.

We watched the whale for several hours, providing a safety zone and communicating with commercial vessels to avoid potential collision.

Encountering whales is not uncommon this time of year out in the Atlantic Ocean, but rarely does one swim into the harbor.

The whale surfaced within feet of the boat, allowing us to take truly unique photos.

It's a Humpback whale and we are searching the national database to learn more about this specific animal.

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For more photos and videos check out the Day 2 and Day 3 blog posts.