Why are so many whales visiting the New Jersey shoreline?
Garden State residents are having a whale of a time these days, observing humpback whales off the coastline of New Jersey.
Spotting a whale out in the ocean down the shore used to be a rarity, but Danielle Brown, the lead researcher for Gotham Whale, a nonprofit group studying marine mammals, and a Rutgers University whale expert, said there have been a growing number of whale sightings in our area for the past 11 years.
“We do think that it may be related to a prey species that we do see them feeding on, which is called Atlantic menhaden or bunker,” she said.
This is whale feeding season.
“Their behavior is related to whatever they’re feeding on," Brown said. "The increase in fish could be driving them to this area. A lack of fish in other places could also be driving them outside their typical feeding grounds.”
Is climate change a factor?
Brown said it’s possible the whales may be hanging around off the Jersey coast because of increasing ocean water temperatures, but no one really knows.
“We don’t know exactly where these whales are coming from, how they are finding this area, are they coming from the south, are they coming down from the north.”
Brown said in previous years when a humpback was spotted off the Jersey Shore it was usually during the winter, and researchers believed the whale was just passing through, but that’s no longer the case.
“Lots of whales are being seen between April and December, and they do stay here for quite a bit, the average is about a month,” she said.
She pointed out however some whales may be staying for several months, and once they do leave they will return for 2 or 3 years.
What’s up with the tail-slapping?
She said whales are very smart and most of them that are being seen in this area are younger, and “they do show many of those playful, socializing behaviors, more so than adult whales might. Tail-slapping, flipper-slapping, those are all part of play behaviors, they can also be communication behaviors.”
She noted younger whales are very curious, so they will occasionally get closer to boats, so it’s important to be cautious.
Brown said that means keep boats away from whales for their protection, but also these 40-ton creatures “do lunge-feed above the surface which is very exciting, but it’s also very dramatic, it can be a little bit scary, and it’s unpredictable, you never know where they’re going to do it.”
She said when you’re out on your own personal boat “make sure you’re looking out for these whales, the best way to watch whales is to go out with a safe whale watching company along the Jersey shore.”