humpbacks return to the hudson

an amazing thing

In 2018 Gotham Whale, a non-profit organisation, recorded a record number of whale sightings off New York City. Sightings jumped to 272 since 2011 when just 5 whales were recorded. This sightings in 2019 have broken that record with 377 whales, mostly humpbacks, spotted in the waters surrounding New York. 

Whales were routinely seen around New York up to the 1600s, along with numerous other species. Then the whaling industry took over, pushing humpbacks to the brink of extinction. The waters became increasingly polluted and with commercial fishing operations targeting the whale’s favourite fish, whale sightings became rarer and rarer.

In addition, New York has one of the busiest ports on the east coast. Constant sea traffic often means boat collisions with whales, some of which prove to be fatal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has recorded 103 known humpback whale deaths since 2016, with around 50% showing signs of human inflicted injuries, such as ship strikes or net entanglement.

In 2016 a high-tech acoustic buoy named Melville - after the author of the novel Moby Dick - was released 22 miles south of Fire Island. The buoy is designed to detect whale calls and alert ships to their locations. It is intended that the boats will then slow down in order to avoid the whales. Since being deployed Melville has recorded calls from the 65-foot-long sei whale, one of the most elusive of whale species. It’s also captured the calls of most endangered whale, the North Atlantic right whale – named so, as at the time it was the ‘right’ whale to hunt. With only 400 right whales left these are a particularly important species to protect.

Another reason for the return of whales is the introduction of a number of laws protecting them and other marine animals from hunting and other activities. Laws such as the Clean Water Act, have also helped clean up the Hudson River and make it habitable again. And as pollution levels have fallen plankton and other lifeforms have bounced back, providing a food base for whales’ favourite fish, menhaden.

As top predators, the return of humpback whales to the Hudson bodes well for the Atlantic’s health. As well as whales, other species such as sharks have been returning to the waters around New York. Great White Sharks have even been seen around Long Island during summer. 

For any visitor to New York seeing a whale breaching out of the water is an incredible thing, just as incredible as it is that these species have managed to bounce back from the brink of extinction.