Investigating the Past and Present Occurrence of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the New York Bight

Vasiliki Panagis, SUNY Maritime College, Bronx, NY, United States, Danielle Brown, PhD Student, Rutgers University, United States and John Wiedenmann, Assistant Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, United States
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) sightings in the New York Bight (NYB) have increased in recent years. It is unclear whether they historically occupied the NYB, or if their occurrence here is a recent phenomenon. Formal data collected on whales in the NYB is limited. However, historic sightings often made newspaper headlines. By characterizing their historic spatial and temporal distribution, we can better understand humpback whale occurrence in the NYB. We searched through archived reports of sightings, strandings, and entanglements of humpbacks whales within the NYB in credible local newspapers dating back to 1850. Prior to the 1970s, there were only three reports of humpbacks, the first being in 1903. After the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed and commercial whaling was banned, humpback whale reports in newspapers increased. This may be due to population recovery or it may suggest humpbacks increased their distribution within the NYB. To better understand their recent distribution, we used Webscavenging software to pull geotagged images off social medial platforms, providing the location and dates of present-day sightings and strandings. Mapping these images suggests they are most often seen outside the New York harbor and off Montauk, New York. The temporal distribution of humpbacks from the newspaper reports and the geotagged images suggest that they are seen year-round, but most often in April to December. Although there were no reports prior to 1903, they may have been present. Yet, there were numerous reports of other large whale species in the area, further supporting the theory that were only occasional visitors in the NYB prior to the 1970s. The results presented here provide insight into the timing of humpback whale occurrence in the NYB, and the spatial distribution of recent sightings. These data are not only important for assessing new areas of their distribution, but also for future management decisions in this highly urban area.