There are two ways to go whale watching.
One is to take a boat and go to them. The other is to stay down and let them come to you.
What – you didn’t know that whales love to people watch?
“They come within a few hundred yards,” said Melinda Rekdahl, associate marine conservation scientist for the Giants of the Ocean program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, parent organization of the New York Aquarium.
Whales have come closer to shore in recent years.
Even more so in recent weeks, according to the New York Aquarium — which urges nature lovers in New Jersey and New York to hit the beach this fall with a pair of binoculars and sunscreen.
How far? A few hundred meters is about 650 feet. It’s close enough to smell the krill.
“They’re definitely very visible,” Rekdahl said. “We started seeing more and more whales in the last five or six years or so.”
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Based on their team’s observations, the Aquarium has recommended 10 locations in the metro area where whales have been spotted from shore – and are likely to be spotted again. Coney Island, Amagansett, the Hamptons, Fire Island, Jones Beach, Rockaways, Sandy Hook, Long Beach Island, Lavallette and Point Pleasant Beach are not the only places to see whales, of course.
You are also not guaranteed to see them on the day of your departure. But the odds, for sharp eyes, are good, Rekdahl said.
“There’s a good chance you’ll see whales and dolphins from shore,” Rekdahl said. “At least dolphins if they stick around long enough because dolphins tend to be more resident in the area in the spring, summer and fall.”
According to the Aquarium, humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins are the two species that earthlings are most likely to encounter from shore, although minke whales, fin whales and North Atlantic right whales have also been observed.
Why are all the whales suddenly hanging from the shallow end?
In part, this has to do with menhaden – also known as bunkers – a species of small baitfish that has become more numerous, thanks to fishing regulations introduced half a dozen years ago that have enabled their people to prosper. You can see schools of them happily splashing in and out of the water of Long Island Sound every summer weekend.
Bunkers aren’t very palatable to humans. But humpback whales love them. And they head for the shore to find them.
“Because of the menhaden, the whales come straight to shore,” Rekdahl said. “This, along with cleaner water, through things like the Clean Water Act, also allows these ecosystems to thrive.”
Once at your chosen shore point, the next step is to travel to a higher elevation.
A walk is recommended. A building window overlooking the sea is even better. The New York Aquarium is happy to tell you about its favorite spot: the top floor of its latest attraction, “New York Aquarium Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” housed in a brand new building that overlooks Coney Island beach.
You have to give yourself a little trouble, that’s for sure. But it’s worth it, Rekdahl said.
“Humpback whales are the most acrobatic and gregarious of the whale species,” she said. “It’s so amazing to see this massive animal leaping out of the water. There’s nothing more captivating than that.”
Where to go
- Coney Island
- The Hamptons
- fire island
- Jones Beach
- sand hook
- Long Beach Island
- Pleasant Pointe Beach
Here are some additional locations in South Jersey (courtesy of Marine Mammal Stranding Center, Brigantine) and Delaware (courtesy of MERR Institute, Lewes Delaware):
- sea island city
- Point of Cap May
- Rehoboth Beach
- Bethany Beach
What to bring
- Sun glasses
- Solar cream
- Binoculars (to look at specific places where something breaks the surface)
- Spotting scope or telescope (this instrument offers the added benefit of stability)
- Camera (a smartphone will also work) and extra batteries or charger
- Layers (if cold or rainy)
- Notebook to record observations.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jimbeckerman1