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Aug 8, 2017 10:42 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Whale Sightings

Dolphins and whales have been regularly sighted off our ocean beaches this summer. For a closer encounter, consider a whale watch out of Montauk this month. DR. ARTIE KOPELMAN
Aug 8, 2017 10:42 AM

I don’t recall hearing so many reports of whale and dolphin sightings from shorebound beachgoers as there were this summer. Just last Friday we watched three humpback whales from the deck at Main Beach, East Hampton as they took turns blowing and breaching while they slowly moved west.“Blowing,” as in “thar she blows,” refers to the exhale from each of these huge creatures. The mist associated with each blow is caused by the warm, moist air from the lungs condensing in the cooler ocean air, and is visible from quite a distance over the water. When traveling, humpbacks rise to the surface every 12 minutes for three consecutive breaths of air before returning to the bottom to feed. The huge volume of air in its lungs is expelled at a speed of 300 mph, creating a sound that can be heard a half mile away. With each normal breath we take, 12 percent of the air in our lungs is exchanged; this figure is 90 percent in whales.

The exact reason for breaching behavior, in which the whale comes partially or entirely out of the water, is unknown. Theories include territorial display, a form of communicating with other whales, play behavior, viewing its surroundings and what may be on the water in its vicinity, and a technique to remove skin parasites.

It’s also possible that some of the breaches we witnessed were part of a feeding behavior in which humpbacks “herd” schools of fish with sounds that they emit, and “lasso” them by releasing a circle of air bubbles that entrap and concentrate the school. Lunging up beneath the school with an open mouth, the humpback scoops up the school and huge quantities of water, relying on its ability to expand its pleated throat to contain the lot.

Closing its mouth, the whale uses its tongue to push the mix of seawater and food against rows of baleen, which effectively entrap even small krill while the water is expelled.

Adult humpbacks are 40 to 50 feet in length, and weigh in at 50,000 to 80,000 pounds. When feeding, they consume up to 3,000 pounds of fish and krill (a small shrimp-like crustacean) per day.

According to Dr. Artie Kopelman, director of Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) and longtime marine mammal observer, we’ve had an increase in humpback whales along our south coast in recent years. Other species commonly encountered here are minke and finback whales.

Artie pointed out that most of this summer’s humpbacks were young whales. They were feeding on sand eels earlier this summer and have since switched their diet to take advantage of the plethora of bunker in the area.

While seeing a whale blow and breach out at sea is an amazing experience, the view from the beach pales in comparison to a close encounter out at sea. I urge you to make a date this month on one of Artie’s weekly whale watches out of Montauk Harbor aboard one of the Viking Fleet’s ships. They set sail every Sunday at 9:30 a.m., returning to the dock at 3:30 p.m. Last trips of the season are August 13, 20, 27 and September 3.

In addition to whales you’ll see lots of dolphins and interesting seabirds, and possibly an ocean sunfish and leatherback sea turtle. The cost is $75 for adults, $49 for children 5-12. Kids under 5 are free. Parking at the dock is included in the fee.

Reservations can be made online at vikingfleet.com/activities/whale-watching, or, by calling (631) 319-6003. For more information visit cresli.org.

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