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Source: NY Daily News

Whales return to New York City: Massive mammals appearing again in seas near city; draws sightseers

BY BARBARA ROSS

Posted: January 31, 2011
Originally Published: January 30, 2011

Whales, dolphins and seals have made a triumphant return to the waters just outside New York Harbor - and the comeback has even sparked whale and seal-watching tours.

Tom Paladino, captain of two ferry boats from the Rockaways, says pods of aquatic mammals off the city's coast have "increased tenfold."

"We used to see 10 whales a year - now we see 100," he said. "We saw dolphins almost on a daily basis between June and September."

There are so many more seals in New York Harbor that earlier this month he started weekend tours on his ferry, American Princess.

On one trip last weekend, he counted 14 lolling on a small island off Staten Island.

Cornell University Prof. Chris Clark estimates that as many as 30 to 50 fin whales now live full-time in the waters just past the Verrazano Bridge.

Acoustical monitors installed by Cornell in and near the harbor discovered six species of whales touring the New York-New Jersey bite - "a real menagerie of giants," he said.

Experts say anti-hunting laws and cleaner waters may have brought back whales and their cousins after being largely absent for a century.

The numbers are "far, far more than expected, even for me," Clark said. "I've been surprised elsewhere in the world, but off New York - yikes!"

Much of the data was collected by a federally funded study by Cornell and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

When acoustical traps were laid in New York waters in 2008, researchers were surprised to hear not only the 20-minute serenades of humpbacks, but a cacophony of other fish making a racket, Clark said.

"Black drum fish lit up the night with their choruses. Males were out there singing their hearts out: 'Hey Baby! Hey Baby! Hey Baby!' There's a cornucopia of life 10 miles off the Verrazano Bridge. It's mind-boggling!" he said.

Officials said the study was supposed to last three years but was abandoned when a DEC official overseeing the project quit to get her doctorate. Budget cuts made it impossible to hire a replacement.

Clark said the whale study needs to be revived because no one knows the extent of whale activity around New York Harbor - or how best to protect them.

Environmentalists are especially worried about endangered species like the Right Whale, spotted locally along with Humpback, Fin, Sei, Minke and Blue whales.

The Right Whale is the slowest-moving local species, traveling at no more than 10 knots, and is the most prone to being killed by ships.

Clark is hoping to raise $1 million to revive the whale study and install a sophisticated monitoring system like one in Boston that notified boats to slow down.

"We don't know what's off our coastline," said Maureen Murphy of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "I know more from 19th century books than I do from anything printed in the last century."