Welcome to The Gam, Gotham Whale's quarterly newsletter, where you'll find news, information, and fun content relating to the whales of New York City!
Getting Ready for the 2021 Whale Watching Season: An Interview with Captains Frank and Tom from American Princess Cruises!
The 2021 Whale Watching season starts on May 1! I interviewed Captains Frank and Tom from the American Princess to hear how they got started, what they enjoy the most, and what we can look forward to in 2021.
Gotham Whale: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. How did you get started running Whale Watching cruises?
Captain Tom: My father started a boating business in 1945, and my background was in fishing boats, then cruises and dolphin watches.
Captain Frank: I come from a fishing background too. The AP started out as a ferry service, also doing Eco Tours of New York Harbor, including Seal and Bird Watching cruises.
CT: In 2010 we started seeing more whales and dolphins on our cruises, and we thought “let’s give it a try.” Our first year we had about a 50% success rate of sightings, but then it went up and up. The trend is on such an uphill trajectory!
CF: In the last few years we’ve had around a 95-97% success rate.
GW: It’s incredible that we have so many whales here now. I used to trek up to Massachusetts a few times each year to go whale watching, and now I can do it practically in my backyard!
CT: We know a lot of the captains up in Cape Cod, and they’ve said we now have as many whales here as they do there. It’s all due to the menhaden—the bunker fish that the whales and dolphins are feeding on.
GW: That’s amazing! (And saves me a lot of driving…) Why do you think that it keeps improving here?
CT: The water is cleaner, and the ecosystem is getting better. We’re seeing more birds. We used to see a few seals, and now we see hundreds, in different locations. We’d see a few dolphins here and there, and now we see them on almost every trip, and it’s not uncommon to see 2+ whales each time. We’re already getting reports of whales in the area this early in the season.
CF: Our Whale and Dolphin Adventure Cruise is now the only full-time whale-watching company in the New York City area. We’re out there enough to have an excellent sense of where the whales and dolphins are.
CT: We’ve developed a feel for it over the years.
CF: We also have a network of boaters who inform us about sightings. And our location is key. We can go east along Long Island, west to Raritan Bay, or south along the Jersey shore, depending on conditions and sighting information. If the conditions are a little rough, we can find a different way to approach a sighting area in order to keep the passengers as comfortable as possible. This versatility helps to make a whale watching cruise on the AP a fantastic experience that’s different every time.
GW: What’s your favorite part of running the whale watching cruises?
CF: Being able to show people the wildlife found in New York’s waters and hearing the passengers’ excitement when there’s a sighting!
CT: Seeing the whales and the reactions of passengers of all ages. I never get tired of it!
Captain Tom; photo credit: Artie Raslich
GW: What’s your least favorite part?
CF: Not seeing anything. We do our best to find the wildlife in the time we have—maybe going farther than usual or coming in a little late, but sometimes we just miss. I think I’m more upset than the passengers when this happens!
CT: When it gets rough out there, and we can’t go into the open ocean. It limits us, but we don’t want the passengers getting sick. It’s also frustrating when we can’t find a whale that we know is out there, or when we get on a whale that doesn’t do much for half an hour or more, and then we leave it to go look at another one and hear that the first one started breaching after we left.
GW: But it’s that unpredictability that makes it so exciting. You never know what you’ll see out there. Speaking of that, tell me about your most memorable day on the water.
CF: There was a day when we saw 12 whales during a 4-hour cruise!
CT: Last year, we had 3 whales simultaneously breaching, over and over. They were on all sides of the boat, and you didn’t know where to look. I believe that they get to know the boat and know we won’t harm them. They come over to us more and more, and we’ve seen an increase in behaviors like pectoral fin slapping.
GW: What type of whale or dolphin not normally seen here do you most wish to see?
Both Captain Frank & Captain Tom: A blue whale! The sound buoys have picked them up maybe 60-80 miles offshore.
GW: Maybe we’ll get lucky this season and see one…that would be outstanding! (In case anyone’s curious, I’m hoping for some orcas too…)
GW: Let’s talk about the upcoming season, which starts May 1st! Where will you be departing from this season?
CF: We’re back at Pier 3 in Sheepshead Bay again for 2021.
GW: What are the Covid-19 protocols?
CF: We’ll continue to operate at a reduced capacity, though we’re hoping to increase it from the 30% we were at last year. Masks are required when moving around the deck, inside the cabin, and when social distance can’t be maintained, and the crew will sanitize the railings throughout the cruise. You can find a complete rundown of our covid protocols on our website.
GW: Will you be offering any “special” cruises in 2021?
CF: We’re planning to start the sunset cruises earlier in the season—hopefully sometime in May—and will possibly add more during the week in addition to Thursdays and Saturdays like last year. The all-day “Seafari” cruises, which we did for the first time in 2020, were a success, and we are planning to offer more of those this season. I have some other ideas too, but I’m not ready to share those yet!
2020 Sunset Cruise on the AP; photo credit: Artie Raslich
GW: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’m so excited for the new season to begin! To book a Whale and Dolphin Adventure Cruise, check out American Princess Cruise’s website. And follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for any updates, including announcements about special cruises!
Whales in the News!
We had some excitement on March 23, 2021 with a sighting of dolphins in the East River off Greenpoint, Brooklyn! Video captured by TikTok user @mickmicknyc gives us a great view of these three dolphins.
If you’re looking at them and thinking that they don’t look like the usual bottlenose dolphins we see in NYC’s waters, you’d be right! They are short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis delphis), which despite their name, are not common in our inshore waters. They are distinguishable by the gray, white, and yellow counter-shading coloration, an “hourglass” pattern on their sides, the narrow, pointy dorsal fin, and the dark stripe across their short beak (rostrum), which gives them the appearance of wearing a mask. Here in the New York Bight we see bottlenose dolphins way more often, and they have a similarly dark dorsal fin, which can sometimes make it hard to tell the difference at first glance.
The below photo was taken by Gotham Whale photographer Artie Raslich a few years ago. (Editor’s note: aren’t they beautiful?!)
Common dolphins; photo credit: Artie Raslich
According to Kristi Ashley Collom, the Lead Dolphin Researcher for Gotham Whale, short-beaked common dolphins are present in the Mid-Atlantic region, but they tend to stay at or beyond the continental shelf in deep waters. Over the last ten years, there have been fewer than a dozen sightings in coastal areas, though stranding data does indicate their presence in the inshore New York Bight.
Kristi and Celia Ackerman, Lead Naturalist for Gotham Whale, both rode the East River ferry later that day and evening in hopes of catching a glimpse of the common dolphins, but unfortunately were unsuccessful.
Kristi notes that “the biodiversity in New York harbor is rich and there are several species we see infrequently, short-beaked common dolphins being one of them. There is so little we know about the movement patterns of dolphins, especially when they are seen in large groups and there are so many inlets, rivers, estuaries, and bays that are likely secret pockets dolphins may frequent throughout the year. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it - does it make a sound? Similarly, if a dolphin is swimming through a channel and moves at 35 mph in turbid water holding its breath for as long as 12 minutes - what are the odds of us seeing it at a distance?” That being said, she adds, “If you went on a whale watch with CRESLI in Montauk, Long Island, you’d be more likely to see the short-beaked common dolphin. Location, location, location!”
Here's a short video of common dolphins taken by Kristi from the American Princess.
In sadder, related news, a common dolphin was seen swimming erratically in Manhasset Bay on Long Island’s north shore on March 30, 2021, ultimately becoming stuck in the mud of low tide. Officers from Nassau County Police Department’s 6th Precinct and the Marine Bureau, along with a good Samaritan, trudged 300 feet through knee-deep mud to drag the dolphin, which had been lifted onto a kayak, into the water, where members of the local fire departments in a small boat helped guide it into deeper water. Unfortunately, the dolphin ultimately did not survive. A necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. It hasn’t been confirmed whether this dolphin was part of the trio seen in the East River the week before.
Another species very rarely seen in the New York Bight, North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), have returned to Cape Cod Bay and other northern waters following their winter breeding and calving season off the coast of Northeastern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. In Cape Cod, the Center for Coastal Studies conducts aerial surveys, and on March 21, 2021, they counted 89 right whales in Cape Cod Bay, including three mother-calf pairs! And as of mid-March, there have been 17 new calves identified, which is wonderful news, as North Atlantic right whales (NARW) are severely endangered, with fewer than 400 individuals remaining in the entire population.
Due to their critically endangered status, it is illegal to approach within 500 yards (1500 feet) of a right whale, making it nearly impossible to see one from a boat without a research permit. On October 11, 2020, whale watchers on board the American Princess were treated to a surprise sighting of a North Atlantic right whale. (Editor’s note: naturally, I was out on the AP the day before!) Once the whale was identified to be a NARW, the boat immediately backed off as required by law and reported the sighting to NOAA and other government agencies. Gotham Whale photographer Artie Raslich got the below shot of the NARW, realizing later as he was processing the photo that there was a rope around its rostrum. That, too, was reported, but the whale wasn’t seen again, and its fate is unknown.
North Atlantic Right Whale; photo credit: Artie Raslich
As reported in the January 2021 newsletter, Gotham Whale’s Lead Whale Researcher Danielle Brown captured a beautiful photo of a NARW off the Jersey Shore. We are encouraged by the number of calves that have been born this season, and although we are sad to report the death of one of these calves, we are hopeful that the others will stay safe. Perhaps during the 2021 whale watching season, we will be fortunate enough to catch a (safely distant) glimpse of other North Atlantic right whales as they pass through our area on their annual migration.
Meet Gotham Whale!
Dr. Merryl Kafka is the Director of Education for Gotham Whale. She was the Curator of Education at the New York Aquarium, a division of the Wildlife Conservation Society, providing marine science programs to community groups, families, students, and teachers for over 30 years. She is co-founder of the Rachel Carson HS of Coastal Studies in Coney Island, and an Executive Board Member of the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA). She received her M.S. Degree in Biology and N.Y. State Certificate of Museum Studies from New York University, and received her Doctorate in Instructional Leadership from St. John’s University.
Dr. Merryl Kafka; photo credit: Artie Raslich
Dr. Kafka is also the recipient of many awards; from the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency for “Project Creek,” an environmental partnership award on habitat restoration, to the “Lifelong Devotion to Marine Education Exemplary Service Award” from NYSMEA. She was an adjunct Professor for Brooklyn College’s AREAC (Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center) for the College Now program for high school students, teaching “Urban Marine Ecology.”
Gotham Whale is a proud beneficiary of Con Edison Educational grants in Staten Island, and in her role as Gotham Whale’s Director of Education, Dr. Kafka has worked with hundreds of elementary school children, “marinating” the kids with a marine biology curriculum about whales, fish, invertebrates, and coastal resources.
Though she now winters in Florida, Dr. Kafka isn’t fully retired, and can now occasionally be found teaching onboard the American Princess Cruises whale watching excursions in NYC as a naturalist.
Dr. Kafka has devoted her life and her career to bring marine science educational programming to both children and adults. One of her proudest moments can be found in this photo of her and Dr. Sylvia Earle at the Women in Science Symposium. Dr. Earle is a legend in the field of marine science, and it was truly thrilling to have her acknowledge the work that Gotham Whale has done!
Dr. Merryl Kafka (l) and Dr. Sylvia Earle (r) at the Women in Science Symposium at Molloy College
Support Gotham Whale!
Gotham Whale is very grateful for the ongoing support of the volunteers and donors, whose generosity enables the organization to continue its important work to help protect the whales and dolphins of New York City.
If you are already a member of Gotham Whale, we thank you for your support and hope you will continue to renew your membership annually. If you aren’t yet a member, please check out the different levels of membership we offer and consider joining. And share the info with a friend who loves whales and dolphins!
Follow Gotham Whale to stay informed about all the latest news and updates on the Whales of NYC!
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The next newsletter will be coming in July!
~Gotham Whale Team
Volume 2, Issue 2
Written and compiled by Beth Anne Miller for Gotham Whale
North Atlantic right whale drawing by Beth Anne Miller