A Whale of a Summer

August 15, 2014
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By John Burton

There have been numerous whale sightings this spring and summer, offering people along the Jersey Shore a bit of a thrill.

“It’s been a good summer for the whales,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a Monmouth County-based environmental organization.

Since the spring, whales, usually of the humpback variety, have been seen slashing and thrashing by those onshore in Sea Bright, Monmouth Beach, Long Branch and farther south. What is probably leading them here is the ready availability of food, Dillingham said.

Schools of menhaden, or what is more commonly called bunker fish, have whales following them as the huge mammals feed on the fish along their traditional migratory routes, Dillingham said.

“The fish move around, the whales follow the fish, and we’re just lucky enough to have them in close enough to see them,” he said.

Paul Sieswerda, whose business it is to monitor the sea life, said, “There have been a definite increase of marine mammals in and around New York City” during the last few years.

Sieswerda is director of Gotham Whale, the research and education arm of American Princess Cruises, which operates whale-watching cruises out of New York City. The territory he studies includes the waters of New Jersey.

The whale-watching cruises regularly take passengers from the Rockaways in Queens, along the Jersey Shore, through Sea Bright and Long Branch, all the way to Deal, Sieswerda said.

“Long Branch and Sea Bright are some of the areas where we see the most whales,” he said.

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Sieswerda suspects the improved quality of waterways in the region has led to the increased number of menhaden that have been attracting the whales.

“If you ask fishermen, they’ll say to you they’ve never seen as many bunker in this area as they have in the last few years, especially this year,” Sieswerda said,

The whales make their way north to the area near Cape Cod, Mass., for the summer and then move south to the warmer Caribbean waters for the winter and their mating season, Dillingham said.

So far this year, there have been 49 whale sightings by Gotham Whale, up from last year’s 43 and the 25 seen in 2012.

But, he said, “It may be the same whale.”

Dillingham agreed.

“We’re not seeing more whales,” he said. “We’re simply seeing them.”

Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, asks that whoever spots whales take a photo of them and email it to the center so the group can determine a count of the mammals.

Whether it’s one or many in the area, it remains an exiting experience to see the majestic creatures in the wild, both men said.

Dillingham recently saw a humpback off of the beach in Belmar. Even after years of witnessing them, “It’s still a thrill,” he said.

“It’s great for people to see them off of the Jersey Shore, because it makes people aware the ocean is full of life … It’s not just a recreational resource for us at the beach,” he said.

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“I think it’s exciting. It’s fabulous,” Sieswerda added. “Not only from a ecological point of view, but also because they’re remarkable performances, crashing through the water.”

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