Beachgoers in the Monmouth County town of Manasquan were thrilled in late August when a humpback whale appeared offshore. For two hours, it breached, spouted, slapped its fins on the water and waved them in the air.
Of course, the humpback wasn’t there for entertainment. It was simply having a long lunch, feeding on abundant small fish in the water.
Humpback whales are making a comeback. Fishermen in the New York Bight – the triangular corner of ocean between Montauk Point, Long Island, and Cape May – are seeing them regularly.
On September 6, a few days after the Manasquan sighting, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its decision to remove most humpback whale populations from its endangered species list. Once depleted by commercial whaling, humpbacks had been on the list since 1970.
Humpback whales are divided into 14 distinct global populations. The population along the East Coast of the United States, which breeds in the Caribbean and migrates north for feeding, is considered stable and not at risk. Four endangered populations remain, including one that breeds off of Central America and migrates up the coasts of California and Oregon.
Although East Coast humpbacks are no longer listed as endangered, they are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 moratorium on whale hunting.
Humpbacks weigh from 25 to 40 tons, and can grow to 60 feet in length. They’re “baleen” whales, meaning they don’t have teeth but instead filter small fish, plankton and tiny crustaceans out of the water. They spend the spring, summer and fall building up their blubber, which nourishes them during the winter breeding season when they don’t feed.
The recovery of the East Coast’s humpback whales doesn’t surprise Paul Sieswerda, founder of Gotham Whale, a citizen science organization that studies whales in the northern section of the New York Bight. Since about 2010, he noted, there’s been a marked increase in sightings.
Sieswerda believes this is due to cleaner water and a better food supply. He noted that much pollution in the Hudson River has been eliminated, resulting in cleaner water flowing into New Jersey’s coastline. During the past several years, he added, commercial catch limits have been placed on menhaden, also known as bunker, an oily fish that’s a major food source for humpbacks.
Despite being moved off the endangered list, humpback whales still face threats. Melissa Laurino, naturalist for Cape May Whale Watch, said humpbacks can get entangled in fishing gear, and risk injury from commercial ships, fishing boats and recreational vessels.
Humpbacks feeding close to shore are probably at the greatest risk of boat collisions. Any boater who spots a whale, Laurino said, should change course and keep plenty of distance. “Whales can dive for six to eight minutes and you have no idea where they’re going to resurface,” she noted.
Humpbacks are by far the most frequently sighted whales along New Jersey’s coast. Finback, minke and North Atlantic right whales also migrate through our waters but are seen less often due to their smaller populations. Finback and right whales are both on the federal endangered species list, facing threats that include collisions with vessels, disturbance from low-frequency noise, and climate change.
Whales are migrating along the New Jersey coast now though late fall. Spotting a whale from the beach is lucky – being in the right place at the right time. To improve your odds of a sighting, try a whale watch boat trip like those organized by Cape May Whale Watch and Gotham Whale.
To learn about humpback whales, go to the National Marine Fisheries Service webpage at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/humpback-whale.html.
For more information, visit the Gotham Whale website at www.gothamwhale.org and the Cape May Whale Watch website at www.capemaywhalewatch.com. Both organizations collect data about whale sightings and want to hear from citizens who spot and photograph whales along the shore.
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