Are there whales and dolphins around Long Island? Yes!
Whales have been locally important for centuries. The Shinnecocks and Montauketts plied the near-shore waters for right whales. Sag Harbor was an important port in the height of whaling in the first half of the 19th century. Whale watches have run out of Montauk for decades.
That being said, it had been unusual to see whales unless you were fairly far offshore. That has changed in the past several years. Recent conservation efforts have aided in the resurgence of menhaden, also known as bunker, resulting in whale and dolphin sightings with New York City skylines and South Shore beaches in plain view.
Most whales move seasonally, migrating to warmer waters to calve, then returning to the more productive northern latitudes for the abundant prey. Humpback, fin and minke whales primarily feed on fish in our local waters.
Menhaden has been called “the most important fish in the sea.” Harvested primarily for fish oil, fish meal and bait, this oily fish had been unregulated for years. Fishers, scientists, and conservation advocates in fifteen states worked through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to limit menhaden harvest to rebuild their numbers. It worked, and we have spectacular concentrations of marine mammals as evidence that cooperative work with sometimes disparate entities can end in a win-win scenario.
If you are out on a boat in Gardiners Bay keep your eyes open. While still most likely to be seen in the Atlantic, bottle-nosed dolphins, right whales and minkes have been recorded near Shelter Island in recent years.
Similarly, if you spend time at Menhaden Lane, keep your eyes on the eastern horizon and reflect on how the underappreciated fish that lends its name to that shoreline has played a major role in bringing back whales to our waters.