NOAA Fisheries urges boaters on L.I. Sound to be on the lookout for humpback whales, which have been reported feeding in local waters. Stock photo: Fotolia

Boaters on the Long Island Sound should be on the lookout for humpback whales, which have been spotted recently in the waters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries is advising boaters in Connecticut and New York to watch out for the giant sea mammals in local waters.

NOAA says boaters and fishermen have reported seeing the whales in the western L.I. Sound over the past week. NOAA said it believes there are multiple humpbacks close to shore feeding on small fish.

Boaters should follow NOAA guidelines for viewing whales, including staying 100 feet away from them, the agency said.

Photo: NOAA
Photo: NOAA

Humpback whales can reach lengths of 60 feet and can weigh around 40 tons, according to NOAA Fisheries. Collisions can be dangerous to boaters and whales alike. When a whale collides with a vessel, it can be gravely injured and die from its injuries. Collisions with whales have also thrown boaters from their vessels. For more information on safe boating near whales, see this NOAA article about marine mammal viewing.

Humpbacks create bubble clouds to corral their prey, and then lunge through the center to swallow the small fish. Fishermen or boaters in these bubble patches run the risk of colliding with a massive whale as it rapidly approaches the surface, according to NOAA.

Bubble rings. Photo: NOAA/NEFSC/Christin Khan
Bubble rings. Photo: NOAA/NEFSC/Christin Khan

“All whales in U.S. waters are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it illegal for people to harm, injure, kill, chase, or harass whales or any other marine mammal,” NOAA said in a press release about the whales in L.I. Sound. “Harassment includes any activity that results in changes to the whales’ natural behaviors, such as feeding. Penalties for Marine Mammal Protection Act violations are fines of up to $20,000 and up to one year in prison. In addition, humpback whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

“In addition to keeping a sharp lookout, we also ask that should the whales approach your boat, you put your boat in neutral until they have passed safely.,” NOAA Fisheries marine mammal response coordinator Mendy Garron said. “Also, please report any sightings. Locating the whales will help us keep them safe.”

Sightings should be reported to NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Stranding and Entanglement Hotline at 866-755-NOAA (6622) or (in New York waters) to the to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation’s stranding hotline at 631-369-9829. In Connecticut waters, sightings may also be reported to Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Hotline at 860.572.5955 ext. 107.

Known for their long pectoral fins, which can be up to 15 feet in length, the humpback whale — Megaptera novaeangliae, or “big-winged New Englander” — is primarily dark grey, but individuals have a variable amount of white on their pectoral fins and belly, according to NOAA. “This variation is so distinctive that the pigmentation pattern on the undersides of their “flukes” is used to identify individual whales, similar to a human fingerprint.” Their long fins give them maneuverability, to slow down or even go backwards.

Humpbacks travel great distances during their seasonal migration, the farthest migration of any mammal.

During the summer months, humpbacks spend the majority of their time feeding and building up stores of fat stores (blubber) to live off of during winter. Humpbacks filter feed on tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, and small fish and can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food per day, NOAA says.

“These whales have only recently returned to Long Island Sound after nitrogen loading rates were decreased by 60 percent and, as a consequence, the dead zone in Long Island has nearly vanished,” the Long Island Coastal Conservation Research Alliance said on its Facebook page this week.

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