Thar She Blows... In New York City

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Whales in New York City? Absolutely. And dolphins and seals and sharks as well. You can see them on a 3.5-hour Whale Watching and Dolphin Adventure with American Princess Cruises, departing five times a week from Pier 3, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Captain Tom Paladino, President of American Princess Cruises, is no stranger to the sea, In 1945, his father started a fishing business, and for the last 13 years, Captain Tom has been offering Whale and Dolphin Adventures. But whales, here? “We have as many whales as Cape Cod,” says Captain Tom. “You might even say, we’re the new Cape Cod of whales.”

It wasn’t always possible to spot so many whales in NYC’s waters. In 2000, Captain Tom and his crew began to see more and more whales in the area. “The last five years have been better and better,” says Captain Tom. “The whales, who used to head to Cape Cod, are now instead heading to the New York area to feed before going back to the Caribbean for the winter.”

Captain Tom admits, “In the 50s and the 60s we were ignorant about keeping the water clean, but now there’s public awareness. No one throws anything overboard anymore.” The cleanliness of the water has been responsible for both returning fish and the whales that feed on them.

So where do you sit or stand when you’re on a whale watching cruise? I move around the boat to choose a spot. The boat has two levels, each with shady interiors where guests can sit and watch from the windows (and choose snacks and beverages from the snack bar). The upper and lower decks both have exterior places to sit and plenty of room to stand next to th railings and in the bow.

We leave Jamaica Bay Inlet and head to the Atlantic Ocean as naturalist Celia Ackerman tells us about whales. Humpbacks, the kind of whales we will most likely see, grow up to 60 feet and have pectoral flippers that can be 15 feet long. The flippers aid in shallow water navigation, rapid acceleration, and increased maneuverability. The whales also use their flippers to create a barrier to trap gathered prey which they can then sweep towards their mouths by swatting the water.

A Humpback, Ackerman explains, on average, eats twice a day, consuming between 3,000 to 5,500 pounds of food. Here in the Atlantic, the Humpback’s choice of food is Menhaden, a species of edible herring which is very oily and is better known as a forage fish. She holds up a long swatch of baleen, a strong substance made of keratin, which toothless whales rely on to filter food from the sea. Hundreds of these flexible plates grow downward from a whale's upper jaw, lined up like the slats of venetian blinds.

On the loudspeaker Captain Tom explains that we will be making “close approaches” to the whales. Most likely the whales we will see are familiar with the boat and might swim along with us. Captain Tom will circle the boat around so no matter on which side you are sitting or standing on, you’ll see the Humpbacks. “We’ll get so close that people might get sprayed,” he says. I truthfully don’t believe I’m actually going to see a whale in New York City waters, but it’s a beautiful day, and just hanging by the bow watching the sun sparkling on the water makes this trip a mini-vacation in just a few hours – no train or plane ride, either.

Humpback whales are known for their magical songs, which travel great distances through the oceans. The moans, howls, cries, and other noises are complex and can continue for hours on end. We learn that this year is the 50th anniversary of The Marine Mammal Protection Act, enacted in 1972, making it illegal to hunt, capture or harm a marine mammal. Just then, we pass Coney Island off in the distance.

“Six o’clock!” Captain Tom’s voice booms from the loudspeaker. I can’t believe we’re about to see a whale. We’re not. “Grey seal,” he calls A seal? In NYC? And then, just a few minutes later, Captain Tom calls out, “Whale, 11pm.” We turn our heads to see less than thirty feet away, the back of a Humpback, whose shiny dark skin glitters in the sun. Humpbacks will often roll onto their side or back and slowly slap the water's surface with one or both fins simultaneously, which may serve as a communication signal to other whales. But what we really want to see is a breech. in which the whale launches itself, headfirst, out of the water.

Captain Tom turns off the engine. The whale doesn’t seem in the least bit disturbed by our presence. In the many years that Captain Tom has been running these trips, the whales know his boat and are not afraid to swim alongside him. The whale stays with us until eventually he disappears under the water. Captain Tom turns on the motor and we move towards New Jersey. While waiting for our next spotting, we learn that Humpback whales are found in all of the world’s oceans and travel amazingly long distances to eat and breed each year. The Humpback is named from the hump on its back which is visible as they prepare to dive. Humpback bodies are mainly black and grey, but the white patterns on their pectoral fins, bellies, and the undersides of their tails differ. Tails (or flukes) can grow to 18 feet wide, serrated along the edge with a sharp pointed tip. These patterns are as distinctive as a human fingerprint and is how scientists identify and monitor individual whales.

“Six o’clock!” Captain Tom calls out as he turns off the motor. Another Humpback is alongside us. I race to the other side of the bow rail. This one is so close that we see water come out of its blowhole as it breathes. We can also smell its foul whale breath, about as unpleasant a smell I’ve ever experienced. “That’s what whale breath smells like!” Captain Tom calls out.

If you think three and one-half hours is too long for a cruise, you would be wrong, because with every passenger’s eyes looking out towards the ocean in the hopes of being the first to spot a whale, time just speeds by. It seems Captain Tom is alerting us to another whale every few minutes. We grab our cameras and iphones and prepare to shoot. By now, we’ve seen at least fourteen whales, although I’ve lost count. We still haven’t seen a whale breech, and I’m sure we won’t. Bu we’ve learned why they breech: it’s to shake off parasites that might cause itching or irritation to their skin.

Suddenly Captain Tom calls out, “Front of the boat. He’s breeching.” And there, directly in front of us is one of the most amazing mammal encounters I have ever experienced. A full-sized whale launches itself out of the water and seems to jump into the air, water falling off his body.

And that’s not the end of the whale encounters on this trip. We see at least four or five more Humpbacks before we head back to the Pier—by now I’ve lost count. At the end of the cruise, I go to say goodbye to Captain Tom. “So how many did we see?” I ask. “About eighteen?” He grins. ”No, just two.”

I find that impossible to believe, but it doesn’t matter. Who cares how many different Humpbacks we saw? What matters is WE SAW THEM! I can’t believe I saw whales and even one breeching in New York City. But then again, anything can happen in New York City, which never fails to surprise. (American Princess cruises is open from now till the end of November. To find out more and buy tickets, go here.)