Field Report: Whale Watching in New York City

Picture of a breaching humpback whale near Maui, Hawaii
A humpback whale breaches off Maui–sadly, not off Long Island, where I was. (Photo: Eric Ellingson, Flickr)

On my third hour of scanning the waters of the western New York bight for whales, I began to understand what a lookout on a 19th century whaleship must have faced. Incessant salty wind and chilly spray buffeted my face as the undulating surface of the water played tricks on my perception. Dark waves rose up in the distance like the black back of a diving whale, then dissolved into glittering spume.

You may not think of New York City’s coastline as prime whale habitat. As a matter of fact, the Atlantic waters off Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island present an all-you-can-eat buffet for humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises. There have also been sightings of fin, sei, minke and sperm whales just a few hundred meters off the Coney Island boardwalk, but humpbacks and dolphins are the most common species seen as they migrate between the North Atlantic and the Caribbean.

Picture of me on a New York whale watching boat
I am appropriately dressed for this whale watching excursion.

The annual migration winds down in October, but it was one my goals this year to go for my first New York whale watching excursion, so I boarded the American Princess on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens for the October 16 cruise.

Whenever I go on an outdoor adventure in NYC, I’m always the most overdressed, over-prepared person there. On this whale watching trip, I wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, thick sweater, waterproof jacket, scarf, gloves and hat, plus sunscreen and sunglasses. I also brought a thermos of water, a complete lunch and additional snacks, binoculars, field notebook and pens, lip balm, smartphone–practically everything necessary for an extended day trip off the grid. Everyone else was in t-shirts and casual slacks. Well, it’s better to have something and not need it than need something and not have it, as my dad always says.

As we motored out to the waters off Long Island, I kept my eyes peeled for our cetacean friends, but saw only greater black-backed gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls and a trio of flying lesser scaups. The sun shone on the water and turned it shades of charcoal, slate-blue and silver. I spotted a ball of bait fish, probably menhaden, churning at the surface. The captain turned off the engines and every passenger waited in silence for a whale to surface around the fish, but none did as the fish slipped past the boat.

Picture of New York waters and Breezy Point Queens
A whale’s all-you-can-eat buffet with Breezy Point, Queens, in the distance.

Standing at the railing of the lower deck, I kept scanning the water, looking for movement that didn’t seem to flow with the rhythm of the waves. Two hours, then three hours passed without a sighting, and I thought of the sailors who would be sent up to the crow’s nest in a whaleship for hours at a time to look for “fish.” If three hours felt like a long time to me, what about three hours for the poor chap at the top of the mast? Or three days for the rest of the crew, just waiting to lower the whaleboats in hot pursuit? Or three week, or three months? I gained new appreciation for the whalers’ resilience. I think the experience will give me a better perspective for writing such scenes in my biography of my great-great-great-uncle William Scoresby.

As it appeared more and more likely that we wouldn’t see any whales as the four-hour cruise came to a close, I parked myself at the stern out of the wind. I watched a gull soar and dip over the boat’s wake, following us as we headed back to port.

Suddenly the captain shouted over the intercom (he actually said this!), “there she blows! There she blows! Twelve o’clock off the bow.” I hustled to the other end of the boat and watched the sea with the rest of the passengers, and waited. About five minutes later, the whale came up and just broke the surface with its back before diving back down. The captain tried to estimate when it would next come up for air. Another five minutes went by, and then it surfaced with a puff of exhaled vapor that caught the late afternoon sun. Again it dove deep. Two more times we were able to spy it off the aft and starboard sides–this lone humpback seemed to be in no hurry to get away from the boat.

But we had to get back to shore, so we sailed back in the direction of the Coney Island parachute drop, visible in the distance throughout the whole excursion. We had never left New York, but I felt like I had been very far away.

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