Who knew that just two miles off the coast of Riis Park, there are whales and dolphins frolicking, eating, and just having a ball. Just a few years ago, the thought of that would have been impossible, but thanks to environmental efforts to clean up the waters around New York City, ocean enthusiasts are seeing these majestic animals return year after year.
A joint operation between Gotham Whale and American Princess Cruise Lines, whale fans from around the world are jumping on the regular excursions that run from March through November, departing from Riis Landing, the former U.S. Coast Guard Station, in the Rockaways. As Paul Sieswerda, Founder and Executive Director of Gotham Whale explains that the relationship between Gotham and American Princess Cruises is just as symbiotic as a barnacle on a whale: they serve a purpose for the other. The monies collected by ticket sales fund the whale watching vessel, and every sailing provides new data for Gotham Whale’s scientific research which documents the numbers and species of whales that come and go in New York City’s waterways. That information is then recorded in the New York Humpback Whale Catalog.
Gotham Whale also depends on whale watching fans to keep an eye on the waters around New York and alert him to any whale sightings. He shares the story about the whale that became a New York City celebrity during a feeding visit in the harbor in November 2016. For close to two weeks, the whale was spotted and photographed snacking at the Statue of Liberty, then days later under the George Washington Bridge, then off the Rockaways. Sieswerda received calls from those with views of the rivers from their Manhattan apartment; he also gets photos of the whales which he uses to compare to other photos in his collection. If the distinctive markings on its back-fluke match, he can officially document which whales are returning and how long they’re sticking around.
This attention gave the work that Gotham Whale has been doing since 2015 a boost in the arm. As a-not-for profit organization, this almost one-man operation depends on volunteers as there’s no budget for any big advertising programs aside from word of mouth and social media. “Con Ed did sponsor an education program that provided funds for whale educators to visit two Staten Island schools,” says Sieswerda, “and they were able to engage the students in becoming new citizen scientists.” He acknowledges that the waters around New York have cleaned up dramatically thanks to programs like these that raise awareness of the importance of keeping the oceans clean. “People are more responsible about how they dispose of trash, and more conscious about not tossing items into the water,” he says. “On our whale watching excursions, if a paper drops on the floor, everyone runs to grab it so it doesn’t blow into the water.”
American Princess Cruises owner and captain, Frank DeSantis is also a fisherman, and with his vast network of local fishing and boating enthusiasts, he’d learned that dolphins and whales were being spotted. Since he was already working with Sieswerda on bird watching excursions, they merged to offer whale and dolphin watching trips. DeSantis did not need extra training to captain these new cruises, but is a member of Whale Sense, a program that promotes “responsible practices” for whale watching and instructions on what to do when a whale is showing signs of distress. “There are also proper guidelines to follow when approaching a whale,” says DeSantis, and he and his partner are regularly evaluated.
During a recent whale watching cruise, Gotham Whale’s researcher, Celia Ackerman, counted two Humpback Whales and about 150 bottlenose dolphins rolling through the waves like synchronized swimmers. They hovered around the whales who were feeding on plankton and the menhaden, a popular oil-rich fish which have made a return to New York waters due to new catch limits.
Gotham Whale and American Princess Cruises will be sailing through November (perhaps even longer if weather permits, and as long as whale sightings continue). In March, in addition to searching for whales, “citizen scientists” can keep an eye out for seals who also come and visit New York. In the meantime, whale lovers can visit gothamwhale.org to learn more about its mission, how to get involved with the research, volunteer, and support efforts to limit the hunting of whales throughout the world.
For volunteer opportunities, visit facebook.com/gothamwhale
Whale photos with permission from Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale
Boat photos by MJ Hanley-Goff