Whale Tails and Cocktails at Sunset


The American Princess pulled out Riis Landing on Thursday, August 8 for yet another adventure in hopes of bringing its boat full of passengers closer to some of Rockaway’s newest neighbors—whales and dolphins. However, unlike its usual daytime tours, this trip’s theme was whale tails and cocktails at sunset. American Princess Cruises’ new sunset whale watching tours are yet another unique way for locals to feel like they’re on a whale watching adventure in Cape Cod, but instead, with a backdrop of the New York City skyline at sunset.

As the American Princess entered Jamaica Bay, passengers were treated to the gentle warmth of the soon-setting sun, while the smell of the salty sea air hit their senses, much like the scent you may get on a breezy night on the boardwalk or in your backyard, but even stronger. Just after 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, it’s officially happy hour. And the boat’s galley is stocked with everything to make your favorite cocktail, plus beer, wine and of course soda and water if that’s more your speed. This is your trip, so make it what you want. You’re in good hands with Captain Tom Paladino at the helm, who’s led the American Princess on thousands of adventures at sea to see dolphins, whales, seals, fireworks and even simple trips to Pier 11 when the boat operates as a ferry. But tonight, the destination was Raritan Bay, a body of water nestled between Staten Island and New Jersey, where Paladino and his passengers spotted whales just hours before on the boat’s regular afternoon trip that Thursday. The hope was that maybe they were still there. And it wasn’t long before we found them. While passengers were enjoying the experience of the early evening boat ride, Captain Tom suddenly announced, “Whale at 12 o’clock!” When on the boat, it’s compared to a clock, to give people an idea of the general direction of a whale in relation to the boat. At 12 o’clock, this whale was straight ahead. Captain Tom directed the boat full-speed ahead to get closer to the mammal that he spotted in the distance.

It was just a little more than an hour into the trip when passengers were treated to a humpback whale breaking the surface of the water and lunge feeding, taking in a mouthful of its favorite treat in New York’s waters—menhaden.

Before spotting the whale, Mitchell Steinhardt, the boat’s naturalist for the day, explained the increase in menhaden, also known as bunker, which has contributed to an increase in marine mammals in local waters. As the boat passed by the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, Steinhardt pointed out the Marine Park Saltwater Marsh, an area that provides a spawning and breeding ground for fish like menhaden. “Due to cleaner waters since the introduction of the Clean Water Act, which prohibited the random industrial dumping in our waterways, this water is the cleanest it’s been in not only 40 years since the laws were enacted, but probably close to 100 years since our heyday of commercial dumping in our waterways. The chemical composition of this water has changed, allowing for the growth of plankton, which the menhaden feed on,” he said. Cleaner waters and more menhaden have led to a steady increase in the whale population in New York waters over the last decade or so. Last summer, Gotham Whale, the nonprofit that keeps tabs on local marine life, recorded 29 new whales in local waters. So far this season, there have been 16 new whales in addition to the ones that have returned, and the season is just getting started.

Those on the American Princess see whales so often now that Paladino says, “The Rockaways are the new Cape Cod for whale watching. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t see a whale.” The likelihood of spotting whales has also led to longer whale watching seasons for the American Princess, and this year, tours will continue all the way through the end of November. It’s also the reason they’ve been adding new experiences like the sunset tour.

Those on Thursday’s trip were treated to a range of behaviors from the whale including lunge feeding, surface feeding and even some tail slapping, as it appeared the whale was waving hello to its new audience. The American Princess keeps a safe distance as to not disturb the animals, but at one point, the whale’s curiosity led it right next to the boat, where it let out a spout from its blowhole that created a rainbow in its mist, right before it dove under the boat. 

As it got closer to sunset, Captain Tom decided to move along and try to search for more wildlife. And without fail, he did. As the sun slowly started to set, creating a backdrop of an orange, pink and purple sky, the boat was suddenly surrounded by a large pod of bottlenose dolphins leaping out of the water. It seemed like the perfect end to a perfect trip—that was, until on the way back to Riis Landing, the passengers were treated to a lightning show as dark stormy clouds over Brooklyn and Staten Island contrasted with the last warm colors of the sunset, capping off an amazing evening on the water.

The last sunset whale watching tour of the season is Thursday, August 15, as daylight is now limited, but Paladino says they’ll bring back sunset tours next summer. However, in the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities to see Rockaway’s wildlife up close. American Princess Cruises offers four-hour trips starting at 12 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, and 1 p.m. on Saturdays on Sundays. For more information or to book your trip, head to www.AmericanPrincessCruises.com

Photos by Katie McFadden.