Hundreds of whales spotted in New York waters after ‘dramatic’ increase in numbers due to laws to stop pollution

Cleaner water and protection measures see numbers of sightings rocket in recent years

Harry Cockburn
Monday 03 June 2019 16:06 BST
BBC Earth looks at the humpback whales returning to New York

The number of whales seen off the coast of New York has risen dramatically in recent years, due in part to legislation which has seen the waters of the Hudson river cleaned up.

An astonishing 272 whales - almost all humpbacks - were seen over 2018. It is an enormous rise since 2011 when just five were seen in the waters off the east coast city.

The surge in sightings is being celebrated as a victory for environmentalists who have pointed to key laws including the Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, which together have significantly reduced quantities of pollution being pumped into the river and into the bay around which the city is built.

The whales were routinely seen around the waters of New York well into the 1600s, but since then, the whale hunting industry and high levels of pollution in the area have made them a rare sight.

Their return means they are entering the bay once again during the summer, before migrating to the warmer waters of the Caribbean for winter.

Speaking to the Lonely Planet travel guide, Paul Sieswerda, the chief of non-profit organisation Gotham Whale said it was the environmental policies which had slowly caused the change.

“It all comes together to make whales, dolphins and seals much more populous, their ranges are expanding back to where they used to be. They used to be around New York way back in the 1600s but humans have hunted them almost to extinction but they’re making a comeback.”

“Not too many people know about it,” Mr Sieswerda said.

“It’s nice to share the excitement about these whales coming back. We can see whales in the foreground and the skyline of Manhattan in the background."

He added: “We’re seeing more and more whales each year so our success rate is very high.”

The quality of water in the area is now higher than at any point in the last hundred years, according to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

The return of the whales has seen Gotham Whale partner with local company American Princess Cruises to set up whale watching tours, now in their ninth year of operations.

The cleaner water from the Hudson has allowed other struggling species to return to the area. The river washes down nutrients which feed a fish species called menhaden, or bunker. These shoals are a key species for humpback whales which congregate to feed on them.

As well as the return of whales, growing numbers of sharks have also returned to the waters off New York in recent years.

Great white sharks have been known to migrate along the South Shore of Long Island as the water warms up during the summer.

This month, the New York Times reported increased sightings as evidence measures implemented by the US government to prohibit the fishing of white sharks had been working.

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