Here be Whales

Thar she blows! Megaptera novaeangliae.

We were off the Atlantic Highlands of New Jersey on board the Whale and Dolphin cruise of the American Princess out of Riis Landing at Fort Tilden on the Rockaways. And we saw a humpback whale spouting and rounding its bulk through the water. Whoa! A whale within sight of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the skyscrapers of the city. The whale, which was thought to be about 30-35 feet long, and hence a juvenile, started slapping the water with its tail. The slapping, which continued for several minutes, was an incredible sight. It isn’t at all a typical whale-watch thing, evidently. There seemed to be a consensus on the boat that the slapping was a feeding strategy, but further research reveals we don’t actually know why they do it. Some think it’s communicative since the vibrations from the slaps travel a good distance. Maybe we were too close … although awed by the experience, I have some reservations about whale-watching: I’m suspicious about wild animals as a form of entertainment, and I wonder what all the boat noises — our 90-foot boat attracted several smaller boats at one point around the animal — and crowding do to the whales. (The plentiful floating trash also darkened my mood, along with the stunning two full barrels of garbage my fellow passengers somehow managed to fill during the 4-hour trip.) I went out to see Wilson’s Storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus), reportedly out in force this time of year. They are, sometimes hanging around sport fishing boats because of the bait and scraps available. These small pelagic (ocean-going) birds are dark with white rumps and squarish tails; as pelagics, they spend their lives at sea except for nesting, and are adapted to drinking salt water. Sometimes they will pitter-patter along the top of the waves, looking like they’re water-walking. We’re unlikely to see them from shore. Meanwhile, I thought the chances of seeing whales or dolphins 50-50 at best, but we seemed to have lucked out.

And then I remembered my camera can take short movies:

Oceanites oceanicus. Megaptera novaeangliae. Some lovely scientific names, no? The storm-petrel speaks for itself, I think, as a wanderer on Okeanos, the great world sea. Humpbacks have distinctive wing-like flippers, so Megaptera should remind you of insect order names like Diptera, Hymenoptera, and Lepidoptera. For “ptera” means “wings” in Greek. Although we often say “Latin names,” the binomial system regularly mixes up Greek and Latin. “Novaeangliae”? That’s right, it means “New England.” Big-winged New Englander.

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10 Responses to “Here be Whales”

  1. 1 xrisfg August 19, 2011 at 8:47 am

    I’ve only gone whale-watching in Maine. Every trip I went on had a cetologist as the guide. The boats were NOT allowed to approach the whales. In many cases, the whales approached the boats. When whales were present, the boats would rest in place until the whales left.

    I would love to see more eco-tourism take hold in and around NYC. Charismatic mega-fauna are the main draw for such ventures. Harassment of wildlife, however, such as you experienced with the swarm of smaller boats, is intolerable. Unfortunately, enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act is rare.

  2. 2 eric August 20, 2011 at 2:44 am

    amazing post

    it’s not easy to conceive of animal life that size living in nearby waters

  3. 3 Soundbounder August 21, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Terrific photos and a wonderful post. Glad I found this!

  4. 4 Ceridwyn2 August 24, 2011 at 11:30 am

    I grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland and it being an island in the North Atlantic, we have quite the population of whales of the shores, including humpbacks, minkes, orcas (though, they’re actually in the dolphin family), and pilot whales. Last year, I went out on a tour boat off Cape Spear (the most easterly point of Canada & North America). We were the only boat out that way, except for a small local fishing vessel and we happened to see three-five humpbacks. When they’d approach the boat, the skipper would put the boat in lull until the whales past. Beautiful to see.

  5. 6 Mark Wilkinson August 25, 2011 at 11:05 am

    What a great trip and some super pictures too. Incredible and extremely intelligent animals. My feeling is that if the whale wasn’t happy about your presence it would have soon disappeared and if eco-tour operators behave responsibly the positives outweigh the negatives.
    A friend shared this link on Facebook the other day – a film of a whale rescue from fishing nets rewarded by a ‘thankyou’ from the whale at the end. Quite touching.

  6. 7 Out Walking the Dog June 21, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Great photos, Matthew. It is amazing that whales, seals, dolphins and other unlikely creatures are living in or visiting our NYC waters.

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