New York City’s famous skyline has been the backdrop for countless movies, sitcoms, crime dramas, and more, but until recently, no one ever imagined it would be the setting for acrobatic shows performed by massive humpback whales. Thanks to the environmental success story of a cleaner Hudson River, now it is and you can join an American Princess whale watching expedition to see for yourself — and help document the return of the planet’s largest mammals to our harbor.

photo: via Gotham Whale Facebook

Humpbacks Make a Comeback
Over the past few years, cleaner coastlines and waterways have been attracting great schools of small fish called menhaden, which whales and other hungry sea creatures like to eat. And where there’s prey, there will be predators.

Humpbacks followed the massive fish clusters — known as the appetizing term “bait balls” — to the waters off Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and now the gentle giants can be seen jumping high out of the water or slapping their tails on the water’s surface.

photo by A.D. via Yelp

The Whale’s Tale
The historic return of the whales caught the eye of Paul L. Sieswerda, a retired curator from the New York Aquarium, and he collaborated with American Princess Cruises to establish New York City’s first whale watching expedition — but added an ecological and educational twist.

As the boat leaves Riis Landing in Queens, Sieswerda entertains the crowd with a fantastic lecture on the geologic history of New York Harbor and the evolution of the modern day whale species. During his talk he may pull out a whale tooth to help illustrate how bailene teeth were widely-used prior to the invention of plastic, or he may explain how whale bones were once critical to the garment industry — used as the structural elements that gave corsets their shape and strength.

Help Crowdsource Whales
Sieswerda also explains the importance of cataloging the whale population in order to better understand our environment and the ecosystems it supports. With that, passengers are duly primed to participate in Gotham Whale, a pioneering crowdsourcing effort the educator launched to count the number of individual whales that swim off our city’s shores.

Similar to the way no two people possess the same fingerprints, humpback whales have distinctive and unique coloration patterns on the underside of their tail fin, or fluke. Since the crowdsourcing effort launched five years ago, Sieswerda and his citizen scientists have documented 42 distinct whales, including 10 so far this year.

Modeled on the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, Gotham Whale also accepts photographs and written documentation about whale sightings from recreational boaters, ferry operators, kayakers, deep sea anglers and Coast Guard officials. (Basically, anyone bobbing around the harbor who happens to spot a whale.)

These identifications help Gotham Whale determine how many there are in the harbor, whether one whale is being counted multiple times, or where else the whales might be travelling. Through images sourced from volunteers, Gotham Whale has already confirmed that some whales spotted in previous years are returning to NYC waters.

Logistics
Four-hour Gotham Whale expeditions leave Riis Landing at noon on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through October 2, and then on Saturday and Sunday through October 30.

The cost is $45 per adult, $30 for children ages five through 12, and free for those under five. To get to the landing by subway, take the 2 to Brooklyn College and a Q35 bus to the Fort Tilden stop. Or take the A train to Beach 116th Street. Transfer to the Q35 or Q22 bus to the Fort Tilden bus stop.

Online: americanprincesscruises.com

Have you ever seen a whale in New York Harbor? Tell us about it in the comments below! 

— Cheryl deJong Lambert