By: Dr. A. H. Kopelman
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
The humpback whale is regularly found in the New York Bight but its abundance fluctuates widely. In some years they are very numerous with aggregations of up to 20 individuals. In other years only a few individuals are present. Humpbacks are one of the baleen whales regularly found in shallow water and have been observed for extended periods of time within Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, Gardiner's Bay, the south shore of Long Island from the Rockaway to Montauk, and in the NY Harbor area.
In some instances humpbacks have also been observed moving in and out of some inlets along the south shore of Long Island (Shinnecock, Fire Island, and New York Harbor). Humpbacks are found in the greatest numbers around Long Island between the months of June through September. Usually they feed on shoals of small schooling fish such as sand eels, bunker (Atlantic menhaden), or herring, they will also feed on small shrimp like crustaceans called krill or euphausiids.
Our trips to the Great South Channel, bring us to a major feeding area east of Nantucket, where we've encountered humpbacks every year since 2002 (from 4 to 150).
Humpback females can reach lengths of 60 feet and weights of 80,000 lbs. As in other baleen whales, humpbacks are not truly "social." That is, they don't belong to relatively stable social groups. The only stable association is between a mother and her calf, which may last as long as 1 year. However, unlike other baleen whales, humpback do feed cooperatively (see the photo above) and some individuals are often found in close association with certain others.
The flippers of a humpback are quite long (about 1/4 - 1/3 of the body length), hence the genus Megaptera which translates from Latin as "large winged." In part, due to the large flippers, humpbacks are relatively slow swimmers but are also quite maneuverable.
In order to dive deeply on a terminal or sounding dive, humpbacks usually kick their flukes out, this enables us to see and photograph the underside of the fluke. The markings and patterns of pigmentation on the underside of the fluke are unique for each humpback and can be used for identification purposes.
If you are interested inhow to determine the sex of a humpback whale, our colleaugues at the Pacific Whale Foundation have done an excellent job that can be seen here (https://www.pacificwhale.org/blog/how-can-you-tell-a-male-and-female-humpback-whale-apart/)
The latest data indicates that there may be anywhere from ~8000-12000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic. The Gulf of Maine stock is estimated to be ~896 in the 2018 NOAA Fisheries Stock Assessment Report.
The Good News:
In September 2016, 9 of 14 distinct population segments of humpbacks from around the world were removed from endnagered status. See https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/09/08/2016-21276/endangered-and-threatened-species-identification-of-14-distinct-population-segments-of-the-humpback
The bad news:
In 2017 NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortaility Event (UME) for the humpback whale along the Atlantic coast from Maine through Florida.
Since 2016, 126 humpbacks have died. Necropsies (post mortem exams) were conducted on about 50% of the dead whales and of those about 50% showed signed of human interactions (evidence of entanglement and/or ship strikes). NY has had 26 strandings of dead humpbacks, leading all states (see https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-life-distress/2016-2020-humpback-whale-unusual-mortality-event-along-atlantic-coast)
Humpbacks can be found during our trips in the waters of the Eastern NY Bight, as well as Great South Channel, NY Harbor, and Stellwagen Bank, to name a few.
To see the distribution of CRESLI's humpback sightings off Montauk you should go to the NYS Geographic Information Gateway and click on the Citizen Science tab (on the left hand column), then click on the Whale Watching tab, then click on the + sign to the right of CRESLI Sightings: Humpback Whale 2009-2017.
We have now had 1342 humpback encounters in our trips to the Great South Channel, Stellwagen Bank, and Montauk. With the assistance of Laura Howes of Boston Harbor Cruises, the Gulf of Maine Humpback group, Dr. Jooke Robbins of the Center for Coastal Studies, Mason Weinrich of the Whale Center of New England, and the FlukeMatcher groups on Flickr and Facebook, and the Gotham Whale Western NY Bight humpback catalog, we have photo-identified 531 different humpback whales during these trips.