Whale sightings increase in Long Island Sound; humpbacks return after four decades

Family Spots Humpback Whale Up Close

By Weather.com

Increased whale sightings in the Long Island Sound made for an exciting summer for boaters and researchers, particularly with the long-awaited return of humpback whales.

The Associated Press reports the sightings began in May after three beluga whales were seen off of Fairfield, Connecticut, and later that month a minke whale was seen off of Norwalk, Connecticut. In recent weeks, there have been several humpback sightings, including areas as far west as Mamaroneck, New York.

"This is the first humpback whale seen in the area since roughly the early '70s," Maritime Aquarium research and university liaison Joe Schnierlein told The Hour. According to him, whales have not been seen in the western part of the sound since 1993 when a 30-foot finback was spotted in New Haven.

Schnierlein believes that the whales were attracted back to the sound by an increase in bait fish, particularly the omega-3 oil and calorie-rich menhaden, reports AP. He suspects that the menhaden's population has thrived due to several factors, such as two-year-old harvesting restrictions and a lack of rain, which he surmises have reduced pollution-laden runoff from entering the sound. According to the NOAA, in the summer months humpbacks spend the majority of their time feeding in order to build up their blubber, which they will live off of during the winter.

Schnierlein also raised the possibility that the whales could have been unhealthy, reports The Hour.

"The whale could have been diseased or hurt which is why it got into the area," said Schnierlein. "The water quality will also have an effect on the whale's health."

Records kept by Mystic Aquarium reveal that whale sightings in the eastern part of the sound are uncommon, AP also reports. Prior to this year, the last confirmed sightings were a long-finned pilot whale off of Stonington in 2009 and a minke whale off of Old Lyme in 2005, said Janelle Schuh, stranding coordinator at the aquarium.

According to her, whales that have become stranded in the sound include a humpback that floated to Stonington from Rhode Island in July 2012, a fin whale in New Haven in 1993, long-finned pilot whales in Branford in 1991 and Madison in 1989 and a beluga whale in New Haven in 1986.

Though they have caused a lot of excitement, the spotting of the whales has also been a source of concern among officials who feel that the reaction and behavior of the Fairfield County boaters could potentially endanger a whale, reports the Fairfield Daily voice. State and federal officials warn boaters to watch out for whales and to stay at least 100 feet away from them.

The NOAA is reminding all boaters that the whales are protected by the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and are referring them to their whale watching guidelines to help minimize the chances of violation of federal law and the harassment or injury of the whales.

As suggested by officials, if a whale gets within 100 feet of a boat, the boaters should put their engines in neutral and remain that way until the whales are clear of harm.

The NOAA reports that adult humpback whales can weigh between 25 and 40 tons and grow up to 60 feet in length. They are primarily dark grey with some areas of white and their lifespan is approximately 50 years.

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