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Whales take Manhattan, flock to waters off New York
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Whales take Manhattan, flock to waters off New York

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NEW YORK — If you're young and hungry, the place to go is New York City — even if you weigh 25 tons and have a blowhole.

Whale watch captains and scientists around America's most populous city say recent years have seen a tremendous surge in the number of whales observed in the waters around the Big Apple. Many of the whales are juvenile humpbacks, and scientists say they're drawn to New York by an abundance of the small fish they love to eat.

There are numerous theories about why whales are suddenly flocking to the city, but one of the most widely held is that the menhaden population has grown around New York and New Jersey. Menhaden are small, schooling fish that humpbacks relish, and environmentalists believe cleaner waters and stricter conservation laws have increased their numbers near New York City.

Whales of New York

An adolescent humpback whale designated "Whale 0140," identified through patterns on the whale's fluke, is seen from the vessel American Princess during a cruise offered by Gotham Whale as the cetacean is spotted off the northern New Jersey coast line. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Gotham Whale, a New York City-based whale research organization, made more than 300 observations of 500 total whales in 2019, said Paul Sieswerda, the nonprofit's president. That's up from three sightings of five whales in 2011, after which a steady climb began, he said.

The resurgence of whales in the New York-New Jersey Bight, a triangle-shaped indentation in the Atlantic coast, has attracted tourists who want to see and photograph the giant marine mammals. But the concentration of whales near New York City also poses risks to the mammals as they ply some of the most heavily traversed waters on the planet.

The whales are essentially "playing in traffic" by feeding so close to busy shipping lanes, Sieswerda said. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has already declared an "unusual mortality event" for humpback whales from Maine to Florida in recent years due to an elevated number of deaths.

Since 2016, NOAA records show 133 humpback whales have died on the beaches and waters of the Atlantic coast. The 29 in New York were the most of any state. Of the dead whales examined, half had evidence of human interaction, such as a ship strike or entanglement in fishing gear.

The appearance of so many whales near New York City calls for environmental stewardship, said Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program. Environmental safeguards, such as the Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, likely helped bring the whales back to New York's bustling waterways, and more protection can help keep them safe there, he said.

Photos: A whale of a time in New York

Check out more photos of the whales and the tourists who flock to see them.

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