Humpback whales were once rare visitors to the Jersey Shore. Now, it’s becoming increasingly common to see one of the largest animals recorded on Earth skipping the surface less than two miles from shore.

Humpback whales – which weigh an average of 40 tons and measure up to 60 feet long – have become a year-round regular in New York and New Jersey waters over the past decade, as they feed in the region for longer periods and return for consecutive years, new research shows.

There were sightings of 101 individual whales between Long Island and the Jersey Shore between 2012 and 2018, according to a study co-authored by Rutgers University and 23 other research and conservation groups in western New Zealand. ‘North Atlantic.

The number of sightings has continued to increase since the end of the study. As of July, there had been 257 whale sightings in the area since 2012, scientists said.

The researchers also found that about 50% of whales seen off the coasts of New York and New Jersey stayed there between 30 and 40 days, and returned on average two to three consecutive years, said Danielle Brown, a doctoral student. at Rutgers University and a senior researcher for Gotham Whale, a nonprofit citizen science organization.

It may seem counterintuitive that humpback whales spend so much time in an area that overlaps with human activities, including the heavy shipping traffic leading to ports in the area. But scientists have a few theories as to why the huge mammals stick around.

New Jersey has an abundance of Atlantic menhaden, also known as bunker, a type of herring that humpback whales feed on, Brown said.

Climate change could also influence where the humpback whale spends its time.

“Further north on their traditional feeding grounds, like the Gulf of Maine, for example, the waters are warming up very quickly, which can affect prey species up there,” Brown said.

Whatever the reason, humpback whales are becoming a more common sight in the New York and New Jersey area, experts said. The phenomenon has offered new tourism and economic opportunities to the Shore.

After a noticeable increase in humpback whale sightings off Belmar, photographer Bill McKim started Jersey Shore Whale Watch Tours in 2018. His first tour had six people on board and one of his recent tours had 125 people on board . good, he said.

“I’ve had regulars who take 20 to 30 trips a year,” McKim said.

Jersey Shore Whale Watch Tours advertises “Whale sightings are guaranteed” on its website. About 90% of trips include at least one humpback whale sighting and most excursions include one to five sightings, the company said.

The tours are run in partnership with Miss Belmar, a family fishing charter company that has been in business for 85 years.

The Miss Belmar made its money mostly from fishing trips until 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit and drastically changed the Jersey Shore ecosystem, owner Alan Shinn said.

In 2017 Miss Belmar began offering whale watching tours one or two days a week and eventually partnered with McKim and Jersey Shore Whale Watch Tours. Last year, the attraction was so popular that Shinn started organizing whale-watching tours seven days a week.

“Who knows what will happen, but every year for the past five years there have been more and more whales,” he said.

Pointing to a humpback whale and seeing people’s stunned reactions never gets old for Trisha DeVoe, a Miss Belmar naturalist who helps passengers spot marine mammals on a tour.

“We have everyone from babies to 99 year olds coming on our boat. So it’s something young and old can really enjoy and learn from,” DeVoe said.

A pair of humpback whales spotted during a whale watch on the Jersey Shore on July 2. The increasing presence of humpback whales has helped fuel tourism.

DeVoe, whose background is in conservation biology, said she also spends time educating people on how they can protect the humpback whale. The population has rebounded under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, which protect the species and their environment from harmful human activities, such as commercial whaling.

But the humpback whale faces other modern threats.

Reducing the amount of plastic we put into the waste stream is key, DeVoe said. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization reports that each year approximately 100,000 marine animals die from the consumption of plastic, and it is estimated that approximately 700 animal species ingest or are strangled by plastics. plastic waste.

Plastic debris particularly hits whales. When large marine mammals open their gaping mouths to consume small crustaceans and fish, they often end up consuming plastic debris as well.

In May, a 16ft whale that washed up on a beach in Greece was found to have 33 pounds of plastic in its stomach, causing a slow and painful death, scientists say. Similar incidents have been reported across the world.

Reducing the number of dangerous interactions with humans — including collisions with high-speed fishing boats — is the second key to protecting humpback whales, DeVoe said.

“The return of humpback whales to our area is such a wonderful thing for the Jersey Shore and for New Jersey in general,” DeVoe said. “We want this to continue.”

Conservationists want to prevent the humpback whale from suffering a fate similar to that of North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species that has seen a significant decline in recent years.

Since 2017, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first declared an unusual mortality event for North Atlantic right whales, the species’ population has continued to decline.

Scientists blame human interaction, particularly entanglements with fishing nets and collisions with boats, as the main cause of death leading to the decline of the right whale.

In February, Sen. Cory Booker, DN.J., with six co-sponsors, introduced the Right Whale Coexistence Act to authorize $15 million annually over the next decade to support research and development grants for projects designed to significantly reduce the impacts of human activities on North Atlantic right whales. The bill is currently stalled in Congress.

Just as human activity impacts whales, whale activity can also impact humans. That’s what a group of boats off the coast of Massachusetts learned last week when a humpback whale broke through the surface and landed on the bow of their boat.

No one was injured, but experts say it’s a cautionary tale for boaters.

“The first step is to educate people that there are whales here. The second step is to educate them on how to properly co-exist with the whales,” Brown said.

Humpback whale off Jersey Shore 3

The number of humpback whale sightings from Manasquan Inlet north to the lower Hudson River and east to Fire Island has increased in recent years.

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jackie roman can be attached to [email protected].