For decades, a typical sightseeing trip in New York Harbor usually featured a boat ride past the Statue of Liberty and a detour for a loop beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
Recently, however, most of these joyrides have incorporated some other sights: humpback whales.
You read that right—after a decades-long absence from the waters around the Big Apple, the North Atlantic’s most recognizable whales have returned to the area with enough regularity that at least one local tour operator is offering whale-watch trips through the summer.
The phenomenon was profiled last week in a colorful piece for Popular Science. The story suggested the whales have returned to the region looking for food—small schooling fish that had been congregating farther offshore until recent successful attempts to clean up notoriously polluted local waterways.
Whatever the reason, it’s crazy to contemplate whales breaching against a backdrop of skyscrapers.
As the story explains, humpbacks have been returning to the area slowly but steadily since 2011. Around that time, Paul Sieswerda, a former curator at the New York Aquarium, recorded the first sightings of the new millennium. Sieswerda went on to found an organization that tracks what he considers “urban whales.” The name: Gotham Whale (of course).
Sightings were scant in the first few years of this decade. Then, in 2014, one lucky whale-spotter managed to snap an Instagram pic of a whale spy-hopping (that is, popping its head out of the water to look around) off the coast of Rockaway Beach, with the Empire State Building glimmering in the background.
Since then, humpbacks have become common fixtures in area waterways, and locals and visitors alike are starting to take notice. In November, for instance, dozens of people reported seeing blows from a group of whales swimming between Fire Island and Brooklyn. Earlier this year, flipper-slapping and lobtailing (when whales swim on their backs and slap their tails on the surface of the water) could be seen from beaches in Queens.
The lone tour operator, American Princess Cruises, offers four-hour whale- and dolphin-watching cruises from Riis Landing in Rockaway Beach. These jaunts are held every weekend through Labor Day; from roughly June 14 to August 31, there also are sailings on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
Trips are not cheap—tickets start at $48 for grownups and $33 for kids ages 5-12. Still, the company boasted a 90 percent sighting rate for 2016, and reports of sightings are relatively positive this year, too.
Get out there before it’s too late! Not only is the story of the whales’ return to New York waterways remarkable, but you also never want to pass up an opportunity to yell “Thar she blows!” in perfect context.
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Matt Villano Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. To learn more about him, visit whalehead.com.