Mystery of dying whales concerns scientists

Scientists are searching for answers about why humpback whales are dying at an unprecedented rate along the Atlantic Coast.

"Having six animals come up in six months is something that we haven't seen in years," said Rob DiGiovanni, the founder of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. "Between May and June, we had four animals come up in a 30-day period." 

Since the beginning of the year, five juvenile humpback whales have washed ashore in New York alone. Two in Breezy Point (in February and June), one in Long Beach, one in Reynolds Channel, and one on Fire Island. A sperm whale was also found in Gardiner's Bay.

DiGiovanni said four of the humpback whales died of blunt-force trauma consistent with a vessel strike.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are investigating these latest deaths as part of an unusual mortality event that began in 2016.

Scientists say that around 30 years ago, a whale would get stranded every two years or so. In 2007, that increased to one per year. By the end of 2017, the frequency was every 27 days.

"We do have food out here… so we might have animals that are staying in the area longer," DiGiovanni said. "That's why we need to help educate the public and work with getting the message out that these animals are out there and make sure that you do try to get them the space they need."

Scientists aren't settling for ships as the sole cause. They're looking into human-induced or natural deaths such as entanglements or harmful algal blooms as other possibilities. 

Stranded whales should be reported to the New York's stranding hotline at 631-369-9829 or go online here.


Quick facts about the humpback whale (source: NOAA)

  • Weight: Up to 40 tons
  • Lifespan: About 80 to 90 years
  • Length: Up to 60 feet
  • Threats: Entanglement in fishing gear, Vessel strikes, Vessel-based harassment, Habitat impacts
  • Location: Alaska, New England/Mid-Atlantic, Pacific Islands, Southeast, West Coast, Foreign


Learn more about whales (NOAA)

Learn more about marine mammals in the New York area (NYDEC)