The fin whale, the world’s second-largest animal after the blue whale, now lives full-time in the waters around New York and New Jersey, according to a new study that tracked the ocean giants by their songs.
This endangered whale typically spends the summer in its Arctic and Antarctic feeding grounds, and migrates to the tropics to breed and give birth in the winter.
But some fin whales live in the New York City metropolitan area year-round, according to new research by a team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
The new research, compared to older data from this region, suggests that these whales may have already been living there for a decade or more.
A fin whale and bottlenose dolphin swim in the waters of the New York Bight, the triangular area of ocean that extends east from New York and New Jersey.
The New York Aquarium compiled this list of the 10 best places to watch whales from shore in New York and New Jersey. Most land-based observers will see humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins, as fin whales tend to be further out to sea.
Four years of audio recordings taken from a buoy parked about 40 miles off the coast of Long Island, New York, revealed that male fin whales remain in the area year-round.
The buoys captured singing whales every month of the study period.
The males are the only ones who sing, but since fin whales tend to mate in winter, the females are likely to be nearby when the males sing their winter songs. And although females may migrate during the warmer months, at least some males seem to stay, the scientists found.
The area these whales inhabit is known as the New York Bight, which extends outward in a roughly triangular shape east of Long Island, New York, and south of Cape May, New Jersey.
Fin whales grow to about 85 feet from tip to tail, and as adults weigh between 40 and 80 tons (80,000 to 160,000 pounds).
They can live 80 to 90 years, but are threatened by climate change, entanglement in fishing gear, lack of prey from overfishing, ocean noise such as radar testing, and being hit by ships.
“While they may not be seen as close to shore as other whales and dolphins, it is truly remarkable that the second largest animal to ever live on this earth is here in the New York Bight year-round in front of to our shores,” the study said. co-author Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program, in a statement.
“Hopefully, our efforts will lead to more efforts and better practices to better protect these incredible endangered animals in the NY Bight.”
Fin whales from the New York Bight tend to occupy this mapped area, but the traffic routes (dotted yellow lines) of ships can pose a threat to the whales, both through direct impacts and the noise of their engines. that interrupts the song of the whales.
The fin whale, named for its characteristic dorsal fin, is classified as endangered. Males can sometimes have trouble finding a mate, and recent reports have shown them attempting to mate with blue whales.
Females give birth every two to three years, after a gestation period of 11 to 11.5 months.
Scientists believe fin whales are monogamous and form bonds between mating pairs.
Since almost a year passes between the time they mate and the time they give birth, their annual migrations take them back to the same location for both events.
This likely means calves are being born and mature whales are mating in the waters around New York and New Jersey.
The fin whale is a baleen whale, meaning it feeds on small fish and tiny marine invertebrates such as krill, filtering them through its enormous comb-like baleen plates.
Currently, fin whales living in the Northwest Atlantic, including the New York Bight, are managed as a single population, but previous studies and the new study have identified multiple groups of whales, the authors wrote.
“More information on the distribution and behavior of fin whales within the New York Bight is needed to help inform how this endangered species can be protected from the variety of potential stressors and threats encountered throughout the year in these waters,” said the co-author of the study. Mindi Rekdahl, associate marine conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in the statement.
He study was published in the magazine Scientific Reports.
By analyzing recordings of whale song taken from January 2017 to December 2020, scientists were able to track the whales’ seasonal changes.
“New York Bight buoys play a critical role in protecting wildlife, like fin whales, in one of the world’s busiest waterways,” said study co-author Mark Baumgartner, a Woods Hole marine ecologist. . “The data collected allows the industry, government and the public to know when whales are nearby.”
Fin whale songs tend to be repetitive, so the main characteristic that changes in them is called ‘internote interval’ (INI), the amount of time between notes.
Most years, the scientists found, the INI was shorter from September to December, meaning the whales called frequently.
This makes sense since that is their mating season.
Groups of fin whales live year-round in the New York Bight. Females may migrate to colder waters to teach their young to feed in the summer, but at least some males remain in the waters around New York and New Jersey year-round.
Fin whales feed through baleen, enormous hair-like filtering “teeth.” They typically eat small prey such as krill and, as shown here, herring.
Then in the spring, from March to April, the INIs became longer.
“Because the songs followed predictable seasonal changes from short INI to long INI and had a distinct INI pattern within each season, a single song pattern was present in the NYB during these years,” the researchers wrote.
In other words, the whale songs followed a clear seasonal pattern each year.
Notably, this pattern was the same as previous researchers had followed in the region a decade ago.
However, they discovered that one year did not follow the pattern: 2019.
This year, there was no short INI period in autumn and winter.
This may reflect a year in which there was a change in reproductive behaviors, the authors wrote.
“Instead, fin whales may have continued to predominantly feed in (New York Bight), while reproductive fin whales may have used a different region for breeding activities,” they wrote.
DailyMail.com has created a map of the 10 best places to watch whales according to the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Aquarium.
When fin whales feed, seabirds tend to flock to the location, relying on the whales to spot schools of fish that can swoop in and explode.
You may be able to catch a glimpse of a fin whale from shore, but your best bet for spying these animals may be to go out on a boat.
The list of locations was published in 2019, but “is still relevant today,” study co-author Carissa King Nolan, assistant marine conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told DailyMail.com.
“From those places, people will most likely see humpback whales or bottlenose dolphins,” he said. “Fin whales are generally found further offshore, so someone is less likely to see a fin whale in one of those locations.”
Although it doesn’t hurt to try.