Whales in Long Island Sound
Photo Credit: Dan Lent. (Taken off Stamford, Sept. 12, 2015)
Common Name: Humpback Whale
Latin Name: Megaptera novaengliae
Length/weight: up to 60 feet, but more commonly 45 feet (females are generally larger than males); 25 to 40 tons!
Range: Humpbacks live in all major oceans, from the equator to sub-polar latitudes. They migrate seasonally, and sometimes over incredibly long distances. Feeding grounds are in cold productive coastal waters.
Diet: They're a balleen whale that filter-feeds, so tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, small fish. They can eat up to 3,000 pounds of food a day.
Predators: Orcas and large sharks may take humpback calves. Larger threats are human: entanglement in fishing lines and being hit by ships.
Description: Humpbacks are known for their long pectoral fins. (Their scientific name means "big-winged New Englander.") They're primarily dark grey, but individuals have a variable amount of white on their pectoral fins and belly. This variation is so distinctive that the pigmentation pattern on the undersides of their "flukes" (tail fins) is used to identify individual whales, similar to a human fingerprint. Humpbacks are also know for their spectacular breaching displays ... launching themselves almost entirely out of the water ... and for the males' fascinating "songs."
Conservation Note: Humpbacks were among the species nearly hunted to extinction by the commercial whaling industry of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thanks to prohibitions and protections, humpback populations have recovered and their conservation status was changed in 2008 from "Vulnerable" to "Least Concern." Global populations is estimated at 60,000 and increasing. In the U.S., they remain federally protected.
In Long Island Sound: For the first time that anyone could recall (or even find record of), humpback whales visited Long Island Sound in late summer/fall 2015 ... and then briefly again in early summer 2016.
It’s unusual enough for one whale to pop in to the Sound. But what was amazing in 2015 was 1) there seemed to be three whales and 2) they ventured far into the Sound's western end ... and stayed so long: boaters were seeing them from August to October. Many sightings were off Mamaroneck and Port Washington, N.Y., within sight of Manhattan. Boaters didn’t just glimpse the back of a whale blowing out a mist when it came to the surface to breathe. No, they saw – and photographed and filmed – humpback whales frequently breaching, or leaping, out of the water. (These images were helpful in clearly identifying the whales as humpbacks.)
One, or perhaps two, whales were seen for a couple days in June 2016.
The whale visits raised a bunch of questions:
Why aren’t whales here all the time? The Sound is too shallow to be much of a regular habitat for an animal that can reach 50+ feet long. And there are only two comparatively narrow openings into the Sound for an ocean-going whale to decide to enter.
So why were the whales here? Speculation is that the whales – and pods of dolphin that also were seen – were in the Sound because of a striking quantity of bait fish widely seen throughout the Sound both summers. The marine mammals likely fed on these enormous schools of menhaden (bunker), porgies and other small fish.
Also, estimates from boaters put the whales at about 25 to 30 feet long. That suggests they were young “subadult” whales more likely to set off on explorations.
Were the whales’ visits an indication that the Sound’s health is good? Well maybe. Potentially. It’s more of a good sign that the bait fish are here. But excess influxes of pollutants, especially bacteria from storm-water runoff and nitrogen from lawn fertilizer and sewage-treatment plants, still create troubling instances of beach closings and oxygen-depleted “dead zones.” These wouldn’t impact a transient air-breathing whale but they do effect our native marine life.
Will whales be back this summer? Impossible to say. If they do return, remember that they are federally protected animals and there are guidelines limiting your approach – for your safety and the whales’. Unfortunately, the need for such rules played out in 2015: one of the Sound’s visiting whales was killed in October by “blunt force trauma,” likely from being hit by a boat. Guidelines of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) require boaters to stay 300 feet away from any large whales. That’s so you don’t hit them, but also so they don’t breach onto your boat! Best thing to do if you see a whale is to cut your engine, get out your camera and enjoy the rare opportunity. Oh and let us know! Report a whale sighting by calling (203) 852-0700, ext. 2304.