Boaters navigating the Long Island Sound last Saturday received the experience of a lifetime—three humpback whales going about their business, occasionally slapping their gigantic flukes on the serene waves or jumping completely out of the water to onlookers’ delight.
Passengers on a commercial fishing trip-turned-whale watch in the Sound near Huntington were treated to a show, as one of the humpbacks, an endangered species known for its distinctive white pectoral fins, breached the water several times. Captain James Schneider of James Joseph Fishing witnessed the two adults and baby.
“All three actually swam right under my boat,” he says. “I could see them on the fishing monitor.”
Humpbacks are a rather acrobatic species. Although it seems they breach, or throw two-thirds or more of their bodies out of the water, to be photogenic, the real reason is most likely communication, say experts.
When the whales breach or slap their flukes or flippers on the water, “the sound can be heard over long distances underwater,” explains Jennifer Goebel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.
Male humpbacks are also known for their comprehensive, enigmatic songs.
Humpbacks are no stranger to New York’s waters, but “we generally do not get reports of sightings in Long Island Sound,” explains Rachel Bosworth of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Saturday’s extraordinary viewings came on the heels of a previous sighting near Milford, Conn. in August and another earlier this month near Port Washington.
The Sound’s food supply has been attracting unusual marine life, such as the trio of beluga whales the Press first noted back in May. Goebel called the beluga sighting an “extremely rare occurrence.” The food increase in the Sound might also explain dolphins that Captain Schneider has been seeing weekly and a sea turtle he witnessed three days ago.
The enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which protect animals and their habitats, is another reason such an unusual array of sea creatures has been visiting the Sound.
“The protections afforded to humpbacks under these acts has contributed to their recovery, as has nearly 50 years of international prohibitions on commercial whaling,” explains Goebel. This led to NOAA’s Fisheries Service proposal to remove the humpback from the endangered species list, a victory for conservationists.
Authorities advise to keep at least 150 feet away from whales in the wild—sage advice, given that the humpback averages 25 to 40 tons and up to 60 feet.