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Cleaner New York waters see surge in whale and shark numbers


Humpback Whale

A humpback whale – named Jerry by researchers – spyhops off New York City. Photograph: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale


Powered by article titled “Cleaner New York waters see surge in whale and shark numbers” was written by Joanna Walters in New York, for on Sunday 10th August 2014 19.51 UTC

Humpback whales and great white sharks are surging in numbers in the waters around New York City this summer, in a wildlife bonanza that is delighting naturalists, environmentalists and fishermen – if not necessarily bathers.

Off New York and New Jersey, some of the largest creatures in the ocean are being spotted in greater abundance than has been the case for decades. Paul Sieswerda, head of the Gotham Whale volunteer marine wildlife tracking group, believes the increasing abundance of whales around the Big Apple is largely prompted by cleaner waters that have encouraged huge rises in the populations of fish which the whales eat.

Sieswerda takes boat tours to locations where giant humpback whales can be seen feeding – with the iconic Manhattan skyline in the background.

“I would say it’s only about four miles from the Statue of Liberty,” he told the Guardian.

Gotham Whale counted 29 whales, all humpbacks, in New York waters from the start of the feeding season in the spring to the end of July 2014, compared with 43 for the whole 2013 season, 25 in 2012 and five in 2011.

Sieswerda, a former curator at both the New York aquarium and the New England aquarium in Boston, keeps records of whale sightings with a team of trained volunteers, identifying individual whales by their unique tail markings.

His team has seen humpbacks “lunge feeding”, where the whales rise up under giant shoals and take hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish into their mouths in one gulp, filtering out the seawater through their baleen grills and swallowing the fish.

Humpback Whale

A humpback whale lunge feeding, showing great expansion of throat. Photograph: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

Sieswerda praised the gradual cleaning up of the Hudson river, which flows into New York harbour, for bringing to the sea nutrients which feed the plankton that feed the fish the whales eat.

“The river used to bring nothing but pollution but in the last five years or so there is cleaner water, more nutrients and less garbage,” he said, adding that other conservation and protection measures elsewhere in the region have also improved the ocean waters considerably.

“My boat captain says New York is the new Cape Cod,” Sieswerda said. Gotham Whale runs research and tourist trips from Breezy Point, Queens.

The surge in whale numbers can also lead to problems – in May, after a sei whale was hit by a cruise ship and dragged up the Hudson River, increased numbers of collisions between whales and ships were reported in the New York and New Jersey area. Last month, the US government’s decision to open the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Delaware, south of New Jersey, for oil prospecting using sonic cannons also caused concern.

Whales and great white sharks are most commonly spotted off the Massachusetts and Maine coasts in summer and have been increasing there in recent years. But improved food supplies in the waters around New York and New Jersey appear to be attracting more sharks and whales to linger, instead of heading north for the summer feeding season.


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