humpback whale
For a century, humpback whale sightings were rare in NYC's waters, but thanks to conservation efforts, a new generation will have a view their predecessors didn't. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

New Yorkers can expect more humpback whale sightings thanks to years of environmental clean-up efforts.

“Because of the improvement of the water quality, algae and zooplankton have multiplied, giving good food for the menhaden [a small oily forager fish beloved by whales], which have returned in numbers that the fishermen say they have not seen in their lifetimes,” former curator at the New York Aquarium Paul L. Sieswerda told Popular Science.

Sieswerda is also the founder of Gotham Whales, an organization that conducts tours and surveys the numbers of whales, seals and dolphins in New York waters.


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“Our surveys show an exponential increase in the number of whales since 2011 when we first began our studies," he said. "Prior to that, whales were only seen intermittently."

The waters around New York City have been the target of running jokes. In the “Seinfeld” episode “The Nap” (1997), Kramer fouls up Elaine’s mattress with the stench of the East River after he decides to start swimming in it.

The Clean Water Act was enacted 20 years prior to that episode, but before 1977, the waters were a dumpsite for factory chemicals, medical waste and other pollutants, some known to cause cancer.

In November, a herd of humpback whales were seen swimming around the shores between Fire Island and Brooklyn.

"We have some of the largest animals on the planet in our own backyard," Rosenbaum told ABC7 at the time, adding that the recent sighting was "a reawakening to New Yorkers of all the amazing marine life in our waters."

American Princess Cruises in Riis Landing offers seal and whale watching tours and reported seeing seven whales on Nov. 12, 2016.

“… kids of my generation knew only three things about the Hudson,” John Cronin, the author of "The Riverkeepers,” wrote. “It was the boundary between New York and New Jersey, the dark, vertical Palisades on the opposite shore got their name from an amusement park that sat atop them; and the waters of the river were too polluted for swimming.”

New York City’s waterways are still far from perfect with aquatic superfund sites in the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek. Raw sewage and storm water —27 billion gallons every year —legally find their way into the city’s water.

“The water, however crappy it is, is our most valuable open space," Eymund Diegel, an urban planner who works with organizations trying to clean up Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, told PopSci. “Let’s make it accessible and clean it again, let's buy some canoes and provide lessons for kids and get people to reconnect.” 

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