Rare Right Whale Spotted Off Rockaway

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 Photos by Artie Raslich/ GothamWhale.org

The American Princess’ last whale watching trip of the season ended in a big way. Guests on the Sunday, December 4 trip caught a glimpse of a rare North Atlantic Right Whale just three miles off of Rockaway. While the sighting was very exciting, not all was right with the mammal, as it appeared to be entangled, according to FireIslandAndBeyond.com, which broke the story.

It may seem like old news to spot a whale in our local waters as there have been heaps of humpbacks around over the past few years. It’s difficult to pinpoint just how many humpbacks there are worldwide, but different sources say anywhere from 15,000 to 80,000, so it’s no wonder they’re the most popular species seen on local whale watching trips. However, the chance of seeing a North Atlantic Right Whale is very rare. To put things into perspective, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last logged the number of Right Whales at 465 in 2011, making them the rarest of all large whale species. Unfortunately, this also means they’re critically endangered. For most marine mammals, whale watching boats are advised to stay 100 feet away if possible, unless a curious humpback gets closer on its own account. However a North Atlantic Right Whale is so rare that federal regulations require vessels to stay at least 500 yards away at all times.

It took the experienced crew of the American Princess several minutes to realize that what they were seeing on Sunday wasn’t a humpback. With help of photos taken onboard by Gotham Whale photographer Artie Raslich, the crew was able to get a closer look at the mammal and identified it as the rare right whale. “It was very exciting,” Captain Tom Paladino said. “The last time we saw one was about four years ago, but it just shows you that more and more whales come to the area every day.” The sighting came just a few days after the Wildlife Conservation Society reported that its audio-recording buoy had picked up the sounds of a right whale in New York City waters for at least nine days.

Upon realizing what type of whale they were looking at, the American Princess kept a safe distance as guests observed the rare creature. However upon closer inspection of Raslich’s photos, the crew found that the whale appeared to be entangled in the remnants of a fishing line, as photos showed a rope near its blowhole. The crew immediately contacted NOAA to not only report the rare sighting, but to try to get it the appropriate help.

According to Paul Sieswerda, founder of the nonprofit organization which conducts research on New York City’s marine life, assisting the whale is not as simple as it sounds. Gotham Whale and the American Princess crew alerted NOAA of the issue, who in turn alerted their closest disentanglement team at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, where the whale population is even greater.  “Getting a team down here would take a long time and it was impossible to determine where the whale was going, so no boats were dispatched. Unfortunately, the disentanglement team can be most effective when a whale is impeded by lines or netting, but this whale was swimming rapidly and did not seem to be slowed down by the line,” Sieswerda said. Captain Paladino said that despite the entanglement, the whale did not appear to be in distress. “To me it seemed like it was fine. It was going up and down along the water and showed its tail a few times and it may have even been feeding as there was a lot of bunker in the water,” he said.

The disentanglement team remains on standby in case the whale is spotted again. All of the agencies involved are relying on eyewitness reports of the whale. A North Atlantic Right Whale is significantly different than the easily-recognizable humpback whales. Right whales have a stocky black body, short, triangular pectoral fins and they lack the noticeable dorsal fin that humpbacks have. Captain Paladino says the whale’s spout was the first giveaway. “The first indication that it wasn’t a humpback was that its spout was in a V shape. Usually we’ll see a spout that shoots straight up, but the right whale spouts in a V shape,” he said. Their tails are also mostly all black, unlike the humpback which usually has distinct white markings that helped those at Gotham Whale to identify which whale they’re looking at.

With the help of Raslich’s photos, which were sent to NOAA, those at the Center for Coastal Studies determined that the whale was no stranger. They identified her as a right whale in their catalog known as Fuse. Fuse is a calving female who was born in 2004 off the Georgia Coast. North Atlantic Right Whales are most often found in New England and Nova Scotia waters, where they feed in the spring and summer months and calving females make their way down to the waters around Florida and Georgia to give birth in the winter. Fuse may have stopped in the local area to feed on the abundance of menhaden, or bunker, in the area as she makes her way down south.

The public, including fishermen, are encouraged to keep their distance if they spot the right whale, but should report the sighting. Take note of the time, location, a description and condition of the animal and if possible, photograph the animal and send the information to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call the NOAA entanglement hotline at 866-755-NOAA (6622).

Fuse wasn’t the only exciting aspect of the American Princess’ last trip of the season. They also spotted Gotham, the humpback whale that recently drew attention after it was spotted taking a tour of New York City up the Hudson River. Captain Tom says he’s doing swimmingly. “People were worried about him being in the river, but we saw him about three miles off of Fort Tilden and he was eating and jumping and everything,” Paladino said. “It was a good way to go out.” American Princess Cruises will start the next whale watching season in early May. In the meantime, they’ll be running seal and bird watching tours starting at the end of the month. Visit www.AmericanPrincessCruises.com for more.

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