Whales have been rarely seen in New York City waters until 2011, but in recent years the whale population in the Big Apple water has been booming. More than 300 cetaceans have been spotted in just one year. All thanks to a better quality of water in the bays and reduction of toxic waste! Naturally, whale watching has become a popular summer activity for many tourists and New Yorkers. During the warmer time of the year, you can spot humpback, minke, pilot, sperm and fin whales as well as extremely rare killer whales and blue whales. Some whales stay in New York waters throughout the whole summer to feed on plankton and krill along the continental shelf, others pass by during spring and fall migrations. You can also spot here plenty of grey and harbor seals as well as Risso's and bottlenose dolphins.
Best places for whale watching
Long Island is one of the best whale-watching spots in the mid-Atlantic with plenty of baleen, toothed whales, seals as well as turtles and seabirds that can be spotted along its coast. Long Island whale-watching tours depart from Montauk, located on its eastern tip. More whale-watching tours in New York City depart from Riis Landing, Rockaway, in Queens and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. You can even spot whales from the shore in Coney Island, Jones Beach Island, Fire Island, and the Hamptons on Long Island. New Jersey shore also features several whale-watching locations and tour operators.
Every summer, Viking Fleet and CRESLI (Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island) offer an incredible sea adventure out of Viking Landing in Montauk Harbor. In addition to regular whale-watching tours, you can opt for the 36-hour Great South Channel whale watch trip that starts at 7 pm and ends at 4 am on the following day. It will give you a unique insight in the life of whales, dolphins, and turtles in their natural environment. This experience is only available in July. If you are looking for a more traditional cruise that lasts for several hours, there are American Princess Cruises departing out of Rockaway in Queens and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. Cruises last for about 3.5 hours and run from June through December. Tickets start from $55 for an adult.
Whales are spotted in New York City waters all year round, even during the winter. However, most whale-watching tours run from April into November. Spring and fall is a good time to spot migratory whales. The high season comes in June, July and August with a few whale watching excursions departing every day.
Fin or finback is the most common whale species in New York. These huge sea mammals can be also spotted close to shore. Fin whales are the second largest whale species that can be recognized by asymmetrical coloring, white on their lower right side and very dark on their lower left side. With a length of 85 ft (25 m), they nevertheless can develop speed up to 23 miles per hour (37 km/hour). Fin whales can live up to 90 years. They are often spotted in groups of two or more.
Humpbacks whale used to avoid New York City shore but since the Hudson River has become cleaner, they have been spotted even close to the mouth of the Hudson, near Manhattan. New York is famous for menhaden fish, also called mossbunker or bunker. Humpback whales are attracted by high concentration of menhaden in New York waters and come here to feed on it. Migratory humpbacks could be spotted off Long Island on their annual route between wintering sites in the Caribbean and feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine. Humpback whales reach 55 ft (16 m) in length and can be recognized due to a black and white pattern on their belly. Their flukes have patterns, unique to each individual. Humpbacks are easy to spot since they often swim along with boats and show off some amazing flips.
Sperm whales can be spotted off the continental shelf break as well as near the eastern tip of Long Island and Block Island. They belong to a toothed whale group and have the largest brain among the animals on Earth. They got their name because initially the substance in their head was believed to be sperm. Their length is about 50 ft (15 m) and they can dive up to 2000 ft (609 m).
Endangered sei whales are not so easy to spot. They have been seen along shelf break of New York, and on rare occasions in inshore waters. They can grow up to 60 ft (18 m) and have dark bluish-grey bodies with a lighter underside. Sei whales are some of the fastest and can develop speed near 50 mph (80 km/h).
Blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, reaching 98 feet (30m), and one of the most endangered as well. They have been spotted in The New York-New Jersey Bight area during annual fall and spring migrations. Their feeding grounds are located at Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St.Lawrence.
Pilot whales belong to the dolphin family, and like bottlenose dolphins, they are really intelligent and can be trained to work with people. One pilot whale was even trained by Navy to dive and get objects from the bottom of the ocean. Pilot whales are 20 ft long (6m) and have a distinct rounded head, a slight beak and an up-curved mouthline. They usually travel in large pods.
Successful whale watching doesn't depend much on the time of the day or weather. However, it's easier to spot whales in clear, sunny weather when the ocean is calm. Mornings with calmer seas are considered to be a good time for whale watching. Sunset cruises offer good opportunities in terms of lighting.
What to wear
Even though it may be hot in New York City, make sure to take a jacket or a sweater on your whale-watching trip as it might get significantly colder in the ocean. Long pants and sneakers will serve you well too. Also, don't forget sunglasses, sunscreen, and a sun hat.
What to bring
There's no need to pack lots of snacks and beverages since most whale-watching vessels have galleys. Bring binoculars, a camera with a good zoom, and some extra batteries. If you suffer from seasickness, take your medicine before the cruise.
Where to stay
New York City offers an amazing choice of accommodation for any taste and budget. If you plan to go whale-watching from Long Island, there are many cozy beachfront hotels that will make you forget about the big city with its hustle and bustle. Montauk has several great options with an ocean view.
Can you see whales in New York?
Humpback and fin whales are often spotted along coastal shelf and even in inner harbors
How long is a whale watch?
A whale-watching tour usually lasts for 3-3.5 hours. However, a longer option is available on Long Island
What kind of dolphins you can spot in NY?
Bottlenose dolphins and Risso's dolphins are most common