By Debbie Cohen
Whale and dolphin sightings in the Rockaways have increased over the last five years, making American Princess watch and adventure cruises that launching from Riis Landing in Breezy Point the new popular pastime.
Tom Paladino, owner and captain of American Princess Cruises, said the abundance of sightings is due to cleaner waters and an increased food chain.
“There is definitely an increase in bait food called bunker [menhaden] along with sand eels and the mammals go where the food is,” Paladino said. “A possible contributing factor can also be warmer waters and climate change.”
The most common species of whales and dolphins, which have been spotted in the Rockaways, Long Island and the Jersey shore, have been humpback and fin whales and bottlenose and common dolphins, according to Paladino.
“I have been giving four-hour tours for the last seven years to view these mammals in the wild, but the last few weeks there have been multiple whale and dolphin sightings every day and the boat has been packed — it’s amazing,” Paladino said. “Last week there were humpback whales breaching and putting on a terrific show during all our tours and dolphins have been spotted in groups.”
The cruises are scheduled Wednesdays through Sundays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Paul Sieswerda, a naturalist and former curator of the New York Aquarium, narrates aboard the cruise and shows a short presentation about whales, dolphins and seals for passengers to become more engaged on their excursion. He is known for tracking whales and dolphins in the waters of New York and heads a group called Gotham Whales.
“In 2011 there were only five whale sightings in the New York waters, in 2012 it increased to 25, in 2013 it increased to 43 and as of August 2014, it’s up to 52 sightings, which include dolphins,” Sieswerda said. “There is an old saying, ‘There she blows,’ and it’s because whales shoot water up through their nostrils. Everyone gets very excited when one of these mammals is spotted and this season has been great.”
Some excited passengers on last week’s cruise could not get enough of the mammal sightings. Michaella Brown and her 8-year-old son Akiva, who aspires to be a veterinarian, said it was cool to see whales and dolphins up close.
“This is my first time on this boat and I would love to go again and again,” Akiva said. “It smells like whale breath here in the ocean, which smells like dead fish, but it doesn’t bother me — this is so much fun.”
Other passengers, such as John and Kay Mertens on last week’s cruise, said they just wanted to relax without camera or video equipment and enjoy the sightings.
“I just like to observe these wonderful creatures and cameras get in the way,” Kay Mertens said. “My husband and I will definitely recommend this cruise to family and friends. We love it.”
Capt. Blair Perkins, who runs Shearwater Whale Watch in Nantucket, and Scott Leonard, director of operations at the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program, have an opinion about safety issues and why whales and dolphins are migrating to New York.
“It’s quite likely that environmental conditions [cleaner water or good upwellings] are providing for increased food fish species which, in turn, are attracting more cetaceans,” said Perkins.
Leonard said there are strict guidelines for responsible whale/dolphin watching that always need to be adhered to.
“The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric administration’s Whale Sense program is an important element of the safety paradigm in the United States, so there will be minimal impact on the natural behaviors of whales and dolphins,” Leonard said. “Whale watching is far superior in all aspects of experience and education than observing cetaceans performing in a captive environment.”
He added, “The concept of whale watching allows us to observe and learn about cetacean behavior, size, social structure, their intelligence and their perception of us in their environment, the wild.”
American Princess Cruises recently extended its whale and dolphin adventure trips until Oct. 13. For more information, visit wamericanprincesscrusises.com.