Are there really whales in New York Harbor?
With my trusty camera in one hand and my notebook in the other, I boarded the American Princess on a two-fold assignment: interview Paul Sieswerda, founder of New York City’s own citizen science-based whale research and advocacy organization called Gotham Whale, and photograph a whale!
Paul and his American Princess crew have been collecting data on whales surrounding New York City since 2011. They hope to share their data so stakeholders and ocean managers can make smart decisions that protect the whales while still growing the local blue economy.
As we set off for the day, the mountainous steel skyscrapers loomed over the horizon. I was skeptical. Could there really be goliaths lurking beneath the shadows of some of the largest buildings known to man? I doubted the waters around New York City could support fish, let alone anything else. Slowly, but surely, I was proven wrong.
Cruising to the whale watching grounds felt familiar. Having spent five summers as a research vessel deckhand, I had missed being out on the water, waving at fishermen, hearing the continuous drone of the boat’s engines, feeling the cool sea air gust past me and the gentle swaying of the boat.
Suddenly, over the loud speaker the captain called, “Pod of dolphins, starboard side!” In a flash, everyone on board jumped on their feet and scurried over to the right side of the boat. Kids were gasping, parents were pointing, and camera shutters went off as the porpoise paparazzi fought for the perfect shot.
My heart fluttered. Despite my long-standing love for dolphins and the ocean in general, I had never been so close to anything so charismatic in the wild. Embarrassingly, I was jumping up and down—as giddy as the small children in front of me. I fought to compose myself so that I too could capture a thoughtful and porpoise-full shot.
The elegant creatures playfully sprang out of the water in unison. Their antics were met with cheers, gasps and claps—a perfect 10 for each of the performers. I was floored by their grace and agility.
The challenge was capturing their beauty through my lens. The rocking boat, running children and the swift movements of the dolphins themselves made getting a clear shot nearly impossible. As they swam off I thought to myself, “I dolphin-etly hope I got at least one decent shot.” (I like puns).
Steaming ahead, we saw lots more dolphins. Each sighting was just as exciting and wonderful as the last. The elephant on the boat, however, was the lack there of an elephant-sized whale in the ocean. Almost three hours later, my patience had grown thin. I begrudgingly made my way into the cabin only to hear, “THAR SHE BLOWS, PORT SIDE!”
I bolted to the left side of the boat, camera at the ready. “Wow, this must be what Captain Ahab felt like,” I thought while eagerly scanning the seas. The whale was nowhere to be seen.
“She went on a dive,” the captain explained. “She should be back up soon.”
This time everyone was quiet and everything was still as every pair of eyes focused on the water. My heart was breaching out of my chest as I tried to slow my breathing, knowing that the slightest movement of my body may blur my shot. It felt like an eternity went by when finally I saw movement from the corner of my eye. I diverted my focus just as a beautiful beast brutishly emerged from the depths almost like a submarine slowly surfacing. “It’s a humpback!” one of the boat’s naturalists hollered.
I was frozen as I made eye contact with the beauty for a momentous moment as she began to submerge herself again. Her beady black eyes were dark but they were a window into the light beneath them. There was an undeniable sense of consciousness in her behemoth body.
Probably as big as a bus, her dark blue-gray skin was sporadically sprayed with white perfect imperfections while rough ridges cascaded down her spine.
I got my shot just as she disappeared.
The crowd cheered as I stood, awe struck. My first whale encounter was nothing like I imagined. She didn’t spray water out of her blowhole, majestically burst out of the sea or wave at us with her tail.
To quote Dory from Disney’s Finding Nemo, she “just kept swimming.” And that was a beautiful sight in its own right.
We stayed in the vicinity for the next hour or so, spotting our serene cetacean surfacing for air several more times before we headed back to port. By the time we returned we had spotted over 80 dolphins, along with our lone gentle giant.
I was stunned. I’ve always considered myself well versed on all things “ocean” but I had no idea the waters off New York City could support so much life. Honestly, who would’ve thought?
I was so grateful for this opportunity and to experience the success of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This landmark law has been vital in protecting marine mammals since 1972.
Shockingly, a bill was recently introduced to Congress that would greatly weaken this law. It came right around last week’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In its defense, Ocean Conservancy took to Capitol Hill to educate decision-makers on the success of this legislation. I am proud of their efforts.
It is no small feat to see a whale just miles from one of the most populous cities on the planet. It left an indelible experience on me, as I’m sure it did the others on the boat that day.
Please join me and Ocean Conservancy in fighting for a future for our marine mammals.