Mystery of the East River whale

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The NYPD spotted the unusual tourist on New Year’s Eve day. But what kind was it?


  • The whale spotted in the East River on New Year's Eve. Photo: New York Police Department.

  • The whale swimming along the East River shore on New Year's Eve. Photo: New York Police Department.

Officers patrolling New York City’s harbor in a police boat spotted a whale in the East River on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

The New York Police Department’s special operations division posted a photo of the unusual tourist on its Twitter account on Dec. 31. The whale was seen swimming along the shores of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, close to Gracie Mansion, where the mayor lives.

New Yorkers who love wild animals wanted to know more about the whale and wondered whether it might have been the same one spotted over a few days in November in the Hudson River. That one was named “Gotham” by a naturalist group.

Gotham, a humpback whale, the most common species seen in New York harbor, was determined to have ventured past the Verrazano Narrows — something whales very rarely do — to feed on a particularly appetizing source of bait fish, said Paul Sieswerda, a marine biologist who runs the group Gotham Whale. Sieswerda described Gotham Whale as “a citizens’ science organization that pulls together reports from people who have ‘eyes on the water,’ such as the police department and kayaking clubs.”

The group, he said, saw Gotham again out in New York harbor in early December, “doing his thing.”

Sieswerda and his fellow local marine biologists and naturalists initially believed that the latest sighting wasn’t Gotham because images capturing the underside of the whale’s fluke, which identifies the whale like a “fingerprint,” were not consistent with a humpback whale.

He was excited by the possibility that the new sighting might be a rare North Atlantic Right Whale, the most endangered of the large whales, because what appeared in the photos as “a distinctive V-shape” characteristic of a right whale’s spout.

But a second image the group received from another person “clearly indicates a dorsal fin of a humpback whale,” said Sieswerda.

Boaters and mariners are going up and down the East River to see if they can find the whale again. That may be difficult. Sieswerda says whales can stay under water for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and move a mile or two in that period. In deep water they can move 10 miles an hour, and be submerged for as long as an hour, he said.

To see a whale in New York harbor is highly unusual and not a good thing, Sieswerda said. Whales could be harmed coming into the waterway.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Office Frank Iannazzo-Simmons said officials from his office haven’t seen the whale. He said the Coast Guard usually notifies mariners when it spots whales in busy waterways to be safe and “let the whale be the whale.”

Sieswerda added, as marine biologists sort out what species the whale is: “To think two different species of whales were in the same location at the same time, one a humpback and a North Atlantic Right Whale, well, that’s like Powerball.”

With The Associated Press

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