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Marine Mammals of New York

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New York Bight Whale Monitoring Program

Several humpback whales feeding in the ocean
Humpback whales feeding cooperatively.
Photo by: Nicole Starkweather

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in collaboration with the New York Natural Heritage Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), has developed a New York Bight Whale Monitoring Program that will coordinate two surveys in the New York Bight, an aerial and passive acoustic survey. Our purpose is to determine the distribution and estimate relative abundance/density of each of six species of large whales in the New York Bight, record data about the behaviors of sighted whales, and record sightings of marine sea turtles. This data will be used by New York State and federal agencies in implementing further conservation strategies to protect endangered whales and sea turtles and potentially reduce threats, such as ship strikes and entanglements, in this region.

The New York Bight Whale Monitoring Program aerial survey began in March 2017, and the passive acoustic survey is expected to begin in the summer of 2017. Stay informed by viewing the "What's New" section on the Marine Protected Species on DEC's website.

For more information, please see survey experts meeting and meeting report.

Marine Mammals of New York

From harbor seals on eastern Long Island to humpback whales feeding just off New York City, marine mammals can be found in New York year-round. All marine mammals in the United States are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and the majority of the large whale species found in New York are listed under the Endangered Species Act. There are two recognized groups of marine mammals that inhabit our waters: cetaceans and pinnipeds.

Cetaceans

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises belong to a highly specialized order of mammals known as Cetacea. The two extant sub-orders of Cetacea are Mysticeti, or baleen whales, and Odontoceti, or toothed whales

Toothed whales, such as beaked whales and dolphins, are born with teeth used to tear and manipulate prey. Their diet primarily consists of fish, squid and crustaceans, but, some species also feed on other marine mammals and aquatic birds. Unlike baleen whales, toothed whales have the ability to use echolocation. When echolocating, toothed whales emit a series of calls out into the environment in the form of clicks and listen to the echoes of those calls. The sound is emitted from the head region, or melon, and received echoes pass through the lower jawbone to the inner ear. This adaptation allows the animals to navigate and forage, and is particularly useful in low-light environments. Read more about one legendary toothed whale found in New York below.

Sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus
Status in New York: Endangered Federal Status: Endangered

sperm whale

Sperm whales are most commonly seen in New York during the spring and early summer. They've been sighted within the channel between Block Island Sound and Block Canyon, where a sea floor depression exists, and in other deep continental shelf waters. They have also been observed in relatively shallow areas off of Montauk Point. Their diet consists of sharks, skates, fishes and large squid, and they are capable of swimming to depths of 400 meters to access their prey. Sperm whale distribution is primarily driven by suitability of the area for breeding and the availability of prey, and ranges from North Carolina to the lower Bay of Fundy. Typically, males range farther north into cooler waters than females, who remain in temperate to tropical waters with calves and immature animals. Sperm whale dives can last from 30-60 minutes, making estimating population size difficult. However, based on a combination of shipboard and aerial surveys that took place between North Carolina and the lower Bay of Fundy, the best population estimate for the eastern US is 1,593 individuals.

Instead of functional teeth, baleen whales use long, keratinized baleen plates to capture plankton and other tiny organisms in the water column. The shape and fineness of the baleen varies among species, therefore, different filter feeding techniques exist. Some baleen whales are referred to as skimmers. This method involves swimming through large patches of prey with their mouths open, filtering food through their baleen. This type of feeding behavior is seen in right and sei whales. Other species, like the humpback, blue and fin whales, will actively swim and gulp a large mouthful of water and prey, then use their tongue to force water out of their mouths. The food cannot pass through the baleen and is swallowed whole. Below are descriptions of a few baleen whales that are found here in New York.

Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus
Status in New York: Endangered Federal Status: Endangered

blue whale

The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth, as well as the largest species of whale that can be found in all the world's oceans. There are 3 known subspecies of blue whales; Balaenoptera musculas musculas (Northern hemisphere), Balaenoptera musculas intermedia (Antarctic) and Balaenoptera musculas brevicauda (Pygmy blue whale in Southern Indian Ocean and Southwest Pacific). It is believed that blue whales are using the waters of the NY Bight primarily as part of their migration routes from summer feeding areas to lower latitude winter breeding grounds. In the North Atlantic, B. m. musculas are found from the subtropics to the poles, with most recent sightings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they can be found during the spring, summer and fall. They rarely appear in US waters of the North Atlantic and spend much more of their time further offshore than other baleen whales. Blue whales are often associated with regions that have high concentrations of their main prey source, krill. These regions include continental shelf edges, underwater canons and dead channels where upwelling occurs. Because sightings of blue whales are infrequent, it is difficult to determine population size. Currently, over 400 individual blue whales have been photographically identified in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where most research and sightings have occurred. Sightings data from other regions, such as Iceland and Antarctic, document a slow rate of population increase annually.

Finback Whale, Balaenoptera physalus
Status in New York: Endangered Federal Status: Endangered

finback whale

The finback whale, also known as the fin whale, is the second largest of the great whales and distributed globally. They can be found in New York, specifically in the New York Bight, year round and are the most abundant species of baleen whale. Fin whales are concentrated in five feeding grounds within 30 miles of shore during the summer, over the continental shelf during the fall and early winter, and feeding very close to Long Island during the late winter and spring. Many of the same individuals exhibit a high degree of site fidelity, meaning they return to the same areas year after year, and often utilize these areas throughout the year. Their distribution is primarily driven by prey abundance. Fin whales, like other baleen whales, feed at a low trophic level consisting primarily of krill, small schooling fish, and squid. Even though fin whales are widely distributed, their population in the eastern US is concentrated between North of Cape Hatteras, NC and Canada. Currently, most fin whale populations are considered relatively stable, and the best abundance estimate for the western North Atlantic is 3,522. Fin whales are commonly targeted by whale watch activities in New York, because of their frequent close proximity to shore.

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Status in New York: Currently under review Federal Status: Not at Risk

humpback whale

Humpback whales are notorious for their full body breaches and unique feeding behaviors, making them a spectacular sight on any whale watching trip. In New York, they're often observed in shallower waters, such as Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, Gardiners Bay, Fire Island and New York Harbor, while also spending time in the New York Bight region. Humpback whales feed primarily on sand lance, but will also feed on menhaden, herring, mackerel and krill. Humpbacks use a unique feeding technique known as bubble net feeding, by creating bubbles in a circular motion, underneath a prey aggregation, effectively herding and trapping great numbers. The bubbles concentrate the prey and force them to the surface, thus allowing the humpbacks to consume a large amount of prey at once. Even though baleen whales are not considered social species, it is not uncommon to see multiple humpback whales feeding cooperatively in order to maximize their prey consumption.

Typically, humpback whales migrate from high latitude feeding grounds in the summer to low-latitude, subtropical or tropical calving grounds in the winter. Humpbacks of all age classes have been seen on surveys from June to September, and juveniles are observed in winter months. Overall, the humpback species as a whole has been doing well and populations have been increasing. Recently, 9 of the 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales have been delisted from the Endangered Species Act, though all are still protected under the MMPA. Humpback whales seen in NY waters are from the West Indies distinct population segment (DPS), which was delisted.

Read more about the delisting of humpback whale population segments under NOAA's featured stories.

North Atlantic Right Whale, Eubalaena glacialis
Status in New York: Endangered Federal Status: Endangered/ Critically endangered

north atlantic right whale

Right whales were given their name because they were the "right" whale to hunt. In the 1600's, the right whale was heavily exploited by whaling for several reasons: they swim very slowly (only a few knots), they float after death, and their long, flexible baleen and significant amount of blubber was sought after. Even though their populations were severely impacted because of this targeting, it is believed their stock may have been greatly reduced even prior to that, and they are very slow to recover. Because this is a critically endangered species, it is illegal to be within 500 yards (1500 feet) of a North Atlantic right whale.

It is believed that North Atlantic right whales primarily use New York waters for migration purposes, but have been found year round in nearby New Jersey waters. Mother/calf pairs and individual animals are spotted in New York's waters each year, primarily from March to June, but they rarely remain in the area for an extended period of time. Usually they are found in shallow, coastal waters, inlets and bays off the south side of Long Island, or in Long Island sound, Block Island Sound and Gardiners Bay. Their diet consists of copepods and krill, and much of their distribution is driven by their preferred prey calanus finmarchicus, a marine zooplankton. In order to help the depleted North Atlantic right whale population, a recovery plan was enacted in 1991 and critical habitat was designated in 1994. In 2005 the recovery plan was revised, and a 5 year review was published in 2012. The population is believed to be slightly decreasing and hovering around 460 individuals

Sei Whale, Balaenoptera borealis
Status in New York: Endangered Federal Status: Endangered

sei whale

Sei whales (pronounced "say" or "sigh") are notorious for having a cosmopolitan distribution, and are the least studied and the least understood of the baleen whales. They are found in all oceans, but appear to prefer temperate, offshore areas, and are a rare visitor to New York. Along the East coast of North America, sei whales range from the south eastern United States to west Greenland. It is believed they travel to lower latitudes to breed during the winter months and spend the summer feeding at higher latitudes. No known resident, seasonal population has been found in New York, however, these areas may be important as a migration corridor. Sei whales prefer deeper waters and are frequently found over the continental slope, shelf breaks and deep ocean basins where their food of plankton, small schooling fish and squid is present. Occasionally, sei whales are found in more inshore waters, presumably in response to changes in prey distribution. Sei whales are sighted infrequently in US waters, so it is currently unknown if their population is increasing, decreasing or remains stable.

Pinnipeds

harbor seal
Harbor seal Phoca vitulina (Photo: US Fish and
Wildlife Service)

Pinnipeds include seals, sea lions, and walruses, however, only true seals are found in New York. There are up to five species of seals that can be found in our waters, some more frequently than others. Harbor seals, easily recognized by their round heads and blunt snouts, are the most common and are relatively abundant in Long Island from late fall until late spring. Grey seals, generally centered in the Canadian Maritime provinces, are regularly seen in Long Island in smaller numbers. Less common "arctic" species, including Harp, Hooded and Ringed seals, have been sighted in New York waters more often in recent years. In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of seals seen in New York. Seal populations are doing well here and are not listed as threatened or endangered though they are still protected under the MMPA.

There are some areas in Long Island where seals will temporarily "haul out" on land to rest. It is important not to disturb these animals, and always remember to stay at least 100 yards from the hauled out animal. If you see a seal on the beach that appears to be unhealthy, please follow the guidelines below on what to do.

What to Do if You Encounter a Marine Mammal:

Two of the best known anthropogenic (human-caused) threats to large whale populations, seals and other marine animals include vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. In order to help marine species, it is important to follow the correct protocol if you come across a marine animal in distress:

  1. Do not touch, harass or feed the animal.
    If you see a stranded or entangled marine mammal, do not attempt to touch or disentangle the animal yourself. It is illegal to handle these animals without a permit, and can be very dangerous. It also causes stress and could potentially harm the animal significantly.
  2. Observe from a distance
    All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, therefore, members of the public are instructed to remain at least 50 yards (150 feet) from a marine animal, both on land and at sea. It is okay to observe the animal at a safe distance, but if the animal notices you or changes its behavior, you're too close. If you see a stranded or entangled marine mammal, please try to keep other people and their pets away from the animal.
  3. Note animals physical characteristics and condition
    In order to help the responders determine the species and what resources are potentially needed, be thorough with your description of the animal. Include details like the animal's size, coloration and condition. Does it appear weak? Does is appear thin? Do you see any open wounds? If entangled, what kind of gear type is it? If possible, photograph or video the sighting from a safe distance.
  4. Note whether or not the animal has any external identification tags or markings
    It is possible that the marine mammal has an external tag, such as a satellite tag or flipper tag. Look carefully from a distance to see if there are any present.
  5. Determine the exact location
    In order for the response team to find the animal, it is critical to provide accurate directions. Try to be as specific as you can and, if you're able, provide coordinates. If the animal is entangled at sea, be prepared to stand by until responders arrive, if possible.
  6. Call the Riverhead Foundation Stranding Hotline, (631) 369-9829
    If you see a stranded or entangled marine mammal in New York, immediately call the Riverhead Foundation's Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Hotline. If you leave a voice message, be sure to include very specific directions and information, as well as your name and phone number so the responders can call back if they have any questions.