Humpback whale herds swim in NYC waters for the first time in a hundred years

Most Americans don't think of whale-watching as an activity one can do in New York City, but conservationists say that may start to change.

Paul Pate | Jun 13, 2017

   

Most Americans don't think of whale-watching as an activity one can do in New York City, but conservationists say that may start to change. Large herds of humpback whales are appearing in the waters outside the city for the first time in a century, and researchers give credit to municipal and state environmental clean-up efforts.

"Because of the improvement of the water quality, algae and zooplankton have multiplied, giving good food for the menhaden [a small fish eaten by whales], which have returned in numbers that the fishermen say they have not seen in their lifetimes," said Paul Sieswerda, founder of Gotham Whales, a nonprofit that tracks whales, seals, and dolphins in the New York City region.

This nonprofit takes tourists out on paid boating trips to scan for whales and the other wildlife listed above. Until just a few years ago, tours such as these might have been impossible: Humpback whales were virtually extinct in the Hudson River and other river ways in the region from the early 1900s on. Heavy industrial pollution and overfishing of the Bronx, Hudson, and other rivers had wiped out the plankton, small fish, and other aquatic life that were the whales' food sources.

New York enacted clean-water and clean-air legislation starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the rivers' health slowly began to improve. Over time, some smaller fish species made slow comebacks.

Sieswerda said that the whales started to appear again in 2011. And in 2014, he and his colleagues counted 106 whales in the waters outside the city. And that November, passersby photographed a whale swimming in the water facing the Statue of Liberty.

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