I was walking along the beach in Point Pleasant, New Jersey on October 19, 2015 when I looked into the water and saw a whale just ten feet from the shoreline. As a reporter, I figured no one would believe this "whale" of a story so I immediately started taking photos with my iphone which was a good first step. Documentation is key especially if you share information with marine experts. More on that later.
I am also a former marine biology teacher. Because of my background, I was able to tell this was a humpback whale because of his large fluke and long pectoral fins. I named him "Coconut" because he liked to roll over and show the white underside of his belly right after he went lunge feeding. Lunge feeding is a strategy used by humpback whales to consume large quantities of fish. Here's how it works: As the whale approaches its prey, the schooling bunker get nervous and flash on the surface forming a ball of fish. The whale then lunges straight up capturing the seafood delicacies. I don't know if it was the mackeral or herring appetizers but I jogged alongside Coconut for three miles while he repeated this pattern over and over.
While I was certainly excited to "meet" Coconut, I knew he wasn't the only game in town. In fact, there are likely hundreds of whales in New York and New Jersey at this time of the year. Humpback whales migrate annually from their summer feeding grounds near the poles and wind up snacking here for as long as they can feed their bellies. They will then take the long journey to the Silver Banks in the Dominican Republic where they will "vacation" for the winter and mate. It's especially important for the younger whales, or calves, to eat as much as possible so they are strong enough to make the migration.
Coconut is one of the calves. I estimate he was about 20 feet which is why it was so easy for him to come so close to shore. If he were any larger than 20 feet, he would need more depth to go lunge feeding.
Humpback whales are surging in numbers because of the cleaner waters. While many already thought of New York City and the Jersey Shore as great destination spots, the waters have now created a wildlife bonanza that is delighting environmentalists. It's not just humpback whales but bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, fin whales and more. There's also a few big fish in these seas including great whites and more sightings. Because the New York/New Jersey area is also one of the more populated areas in the world for people, that means close encounters will likely increase in the years to come.
So - now that the whales are enjoying the fresh seafood here, what should you do if you see one? According to Bob Schoelkopf of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, notify the experts.
"It's important to notify the experts because we need to know if the animal is in distress especially if they are close to shore," Schoelkopf says. "Most people take pictures and share them on social media which is "okay" but share with the experts first. We don't want to read about this on facebook. If we aren't notified first, we may get the news one day late. The animal may be out of the area or worst."
Schoelkopf adds every state that has a coastline has a 24-hour marine mammal stranding center. If you encounter a whale close to the shoreline in New Jersey, like Coconut, the number is 609-266-0538.
Schoelkopf also cautions boaters to be careful.
Because humpback whales are among the most intriguing and engaging animals with their feeding style, acrobatics and songs, they often attract the attention of explorers. But their massive size makes them among the largest animals in the world so everyone wants to sneak a peak. Adults can weigh up to 40 tons and be 60 feet in length. So while there is a natural curiosity, it doesn't make much sense to approach a whale especially if you're in a 20 foot boat. Mothers can also be very aggressive especially if they're protecting their young.
And don't forget. Humpbacks will leave our area for the Dominican Republic in a few weeks but they will return in April before heading back north. Since we are all sharing the same zip code, it's important to know the rules of the water. If you encounter any animal, take pictures and share with your local marine mammal stranding center. It's okay to post to facebook, but it's also important to let the experts know first in case the animal is in distress. Even though Coconut was just feeding, he could have been hit by a boat, tangled in fishing gear, or just sick. I did what most people do. I took my pictures and posted to facebook. I should have known better. Next time I will definitely notify the experts first. This simple rule may just save some whales.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration works with marine mammal stranding centers in all coastal states. For a complete list, log onto: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/report.htm