Whale-watching in New York City

Just five miles off the coast, the whales have returned.

Whale-watching in New York City

Just five miles off the coast, the whales have returned.

You think you know a little something about whales, and then Paul Sieswerda takes you to the Rockaways to go whale watching and you realize you know nothing. Paul, the founder of the New York City-based nonprofit Gotham Whale, drives a two-door Honda Accord with the graphic of a massive humpback whale’s fluke adorning the hood. The license plate reads “WHALEMAN.” A Star Trek-themed toy featuring two breaching whales sits on his dash.

In a world of near-apocalyptic climate change stories, the arrival of humpback whales off the coast of New York City is a rare bit of optimism — many oceanic experts agree that the whale population’s growth is due in large part to regulations that have allowed for cleaner waterways, combined with regulations placed on commercial fishing, which has increased the population of menhaden, otherwise known as bunker or, as Paul says, “the most important fish in the sea.” Humpback whales really, really love menhaden (humans love it, too, we just rarely eat it directly, instead taking it in the form of fish oil), which are usually no more than a foot long, have a kind of oily silverish sheen, and swim all dumb and slow with their mouths open.

And yet, with those same mouths, they take in water and filter it through their bodies, like oysters, leaving behind a cleaner, better ocean. They were declared overfished by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012, and, as such, the commission ruled to scale back menhaden harvests by 20 percent. It was the first ever regulation placed on menhaden in commercial fishing history. Since then, they have come back steadily, and with them, the whales.

But back to Paul. Seventy-six years old and with the charming, gritty charisma of someone who was born in Boston and spent much of his life in New York City, Paul founded Gotham Whale, which is dedicated to researching and advocating for the growing amount of whales in the New York City area, in 2009. He had spent the previous 21 years as the curator at the New York Aquarium ( where he researched everything from sharks to what he calls “fish farts” — a bubble-based defense mechanism used by menhaden to protect them from predators). Paul, who lives in Staten Island, has befriended a growing group of retirees who try to make it out whale watching with him at least once or twice a summer.

Paul Sieswerda, ready to whale watch.

Paul Sieswerda, ready to whale watch.

Later in the day, Dennis, a Gotham Whale regular and city-born naturalist taking photos of whales for the fourth season in a row, told me, “The food is here, so the whales are here.” You can see schools of menhaden from the boat, long trails of murky brown extending out to sea, and you can see them flying out of a hungry whale’s mouth when they lunge feed. (This is Artie’s — a Gotham Whale staff photographer — unabashed favorite thing.)

All of this began with the Clean Water Act of 1977. Still, it took until 1992 for New York City to stop dumping sewage into the ocean, even though Congress had made such a thing illegal in 1988. Now, New York City processes 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a day, and organizations such as the Billion Oyster Project, the goal of which is to have a billion naturally water-filtering oysters covering hundreds of acres of reefs in the NYC area by 2030, are dedicated to building healthy biodiversity in the city’s waterways. It’s a work in progress, but the results can be seen in the growing presence of whales.

“You may get the unique opportunity to experience whale breath,” Paul said later, speaking over microphone to a crowd of whale watchers aboard a commercial whale-watching ship named Atlantic Pearl, “Once you experience it, it is not to be forgotten.” After the drive from Staten Island, we were aboard a boat, ready to begin our journey from Riis Landing in the Rockaways about five nautical miles into the Hudson Canyon, a channel of deeper ocean where the the one shipping lane used for boats coming into New York harbor meets the wide-open ocean.

In its first year, Gotham Whale spotted a grand total of five whales, but now, thanks to a small, all-volunteer staff, including photographers equipped with GPS locators that pinpoint the latitude and longitude of their photographs, the nonprofit has single-handedly identified 84 distinct humpback whales just four to five miles off the city’s coast. They are some of the only ones doing this work.

Gotham Whale partnered with a commercial day cruise company, American Princess, which owns the Atlantic Pearl, so that each departing ship is filled with both sightseeing whale watchers and a handful of Gotham Whale researchers and photographers. The day I met Paul, there were 120 paying customers ready for whales. They were joined by the ship’s crew and the Gotham Whale staff of Paul, Artie, and Mitchell, who each came with cameras to snap photos of humpback flukes.

Humpback whales possess distinct flukes, which are used like fingerprints to identify them. In order to imagine a fluke slipping into the water, picture a bold, wide-angled “v” shape. The inner sides of that “v” are known as the trailing edge of the fluke. These trailing edges are often riddled with bumps and ridges, which remain for the most part unchanging throughout a humpback’s life.

The underside of the “v” is usually a white or dark pigment, and that pigment is often spotted with patterns or marks, a kind of birthmark. These birthmarks hardly change over time, but can be made more complicated due to scars left from barnacles or encounters with predators. Finally, the place where the two sides of the “v” (the right and left fluke) meet is called a notch, and this too retains a unique shape, whether narrow or wide or angled, throughout a whale’s life. Taken together, all three characteristics can be used together or individually in order to identify and track a specific whale. Gotham Whale’s photographers stand at all sides of a boat so that no fluke goes unsnapped.

On the ride to the Rockaways, Paul made clear the grassroots nature of Gotham Whale. “We’re citizen scientists, and proud of it” he said. The term “citizen scientist” came up frequently with Paul, who believes wholeheartedly in the ability of everyday people to shape the course of science. Academics, he argued, “think you need a Ph.D to shoot a camera.”

Paul is plucky and ingenious, the kind of person who understands, as he told me, that “you can be on the front line of things real fast.” He’s determined to be doing the kind of research nobody’s been doing even if the money is low because “it’s easier to make pioneering efforts if nobody’s been there.” But for all that ingenuity, Gotham Whale still has had to make do with a “pitifully small amount of money” to fund its efforts.

Currently, the group is working with a budget of approximately $15,000. A third of that money comes from Con Edison, which requires Gotham Whale to provide in-school programming at PS-45 in Staten Island. The group also acquired a Sea of Change grant, which gave it $5,000 toward software development to assist in the cataloging of whales. The rest of the money comes from small-time donations. Paul helps write these grants and is hoping for bigger money from grants more specifically tied to Gotham Whale’s mission, but for now, he’s thankful these smaller grants give him and his staff — all unpaid — a chance to get out on the boat and get out into the world to both document whales and educate others about their existence.

Back on the Atlantic Pearl, Paul played both teacher and funny-guy, referencing the “Marine Biologist” episode of Seinfeld to teach us all about the differences in blowhole quantity between various whales. He mentioned the moment when George pulls a golf ball out of a whale’s blowhole, saving its life. But, Paul said, — and here I found myself, along with fellow passengers, transfixed — what the episode failed to mention is that baleen whales, humpbacks included, actually have two blowholes, located right next to the other. I overheard someone near me say, “Wow, I just learned something today.”

Though whales have been off the coast of New York City for the past few years, there is still a sense that whale-watching takes place in California or Cape Cod. Ellen, one of Paul’s retiree friends, flashed a smile when I mentioned this. “A few years ago,” she said, “If I asked what you were doing, and you said whale watching, I wouldn’t believe you.”

It costs $48 for passengers to come whale watching in New York City (babies ride free). That day, most passengers were middle-aged families, couples, and international tourists. Lonny, the assistant director of the Prospect Park Zoo, who came out just for fun. Emily and Keely, two friends from Brooklyn, wore matching tops adorned with whales. Emily, 31, was perhaps the most thrilled person on the boat other than Paul. “I still think of whales as being in the unicorn category,” she told me, when I wondered if she had ever seen a whale before. She hadn’t. Would she? She would.

Our captain, Frank DeSantis, who owns the American Princess cruise line and partners with Paul and Gotham Whale, enlisted all of us to “work like a flock” and look for a spout in the distance. “Spot a whale,” he said, “Be a hero.” Paul grinned widely. He spent much of the ride complementing the eyesight of those who pinpointed whales in the distance and the iPhone photos of those who captured them.

Emily and Keely wore matching whale shirts to the whale watch.

Emily and Keely wore matching whale shirts to the whale watch.

It didn’t take long before we saw a whale. First, there was a spout of mist a quarter mile off the starboard side, and then the eerie, beautiful curve of its massive back, and, finally, a fluke slipping under the surface. It’s quite literally hard to relate the excitement of the Atlantic Pearl at that moment. But I will try. My photographer, Andrew, sprinted headlong into a crowd of people leaning over the rail to catch a glimpse. Moments later, his face turned back to me and mouthed wow. It was as if the city — so recently an intimate part of our purview — had faded not just in stature but in significance, as if, in the presence of these 60,000-lb animals floating gracefully between their world and ours, we understood we had the potential, as humans, to be lesser-than.

Passengers sashayed from port to starboard and back, phones up and at the ready, as Frank called out whale sightings from his vantage point.

“That’s a spout at 9 o’clock.”

“Lunge feed at 5 o’clock.”

Finally, at our 3 o’clock, something majestic happened. A humpback breached, leaping out of the water — three, four, five times in a row. Joyous, exuberant, the passengers applauded each time, and each time it seemed the whale responded with this lifting, jumping sort of play. I tried to write something down — to capture the strange and sudden joy of seeing an animal I never thought I’d see breach the calm surface of water along the distant skyline of New York City — but I couldn’t. There’s a word for it, though, and that word is “awesome.” It came to my mind then, in big bold letters sprawled over the skyline. And it came up later, when I asked Frank why he captained the boat, or asked Artie why he took photos from the bow. Frank said, “It’s awesome to be around these animals.” And Artie just said, “It’s awesome.”

New York’s burgeoning whale population still faces danger. At one point on our trip, Frank had to call a massive freighter making its way into New York harbor, alerting it to the presence of whales in the area. As he did, Paul told me of the “unusual mortality event” that researchers had declared due to a large amount of whales having been struck by ships, particularly in the vicinity of New York. As of August 29, 81 whales have been found dead on the Atlantic Coast between 2016 and 2018, and more than half of those deaths, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have been due to either ship strikes or entanglement with nets or other equipment.

In other words, humans have had a hand in more than 40 whale deaths in the past three years. One of Gotham Whale’s missions is to address this by compiling data that shows a large amount of whales feeding in the vicinity of shipping lanes. Paul hopes that proving that these locations are crucial feeding grounds for whales will allow for slower, more regulated boat speeds in these areas and increased accountability on the part of ship captains. Gotham Whale’s data from the day’s trip alone, which showed four distinct humpbacks in the vicinity of New York City’s lone major shipping line, might serve Paul’s mission.

After confirming that the humpback we had been hanging out with had avoided the freighter, Paul pointed out a pilot ship in the distance, where locally knowledgeable captains waited before helping to maneuver foreign ships into the harbor. He has wanted to enlist these boats as citizen scientists, since they are mainstays in the water, and in turn give them a sense of ownership in the lives of these whales, but he’s been met with stubbornness — a reaction, he thinks, is due to a fear of the aforementioned regulations on commercial shipping speed.

Regardless, the trip was a success, both commercially and scientifically. Some people were sunburnt and some were seasick, but most of Gotham Whale’s volunteers were excited to comb through photos and see if any of the four humpbacks spotted were new. And, listening to Paul the next day, I learned that one was now named #NYC084. Can you believe it, 84 whales hanging out just off the coast of New York City, just five miles from where I sit here writing this in a pool of sweat that has been dripping from my forehead since the moment I got off the subway? Life, it seems, can always be better. The whales show us this.

Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. He lives and teaches high school in New York City. Photographs by Andrew Beers.