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Reynolds Channel Humpback Whale FAQs

Q: How does NOAA Fisheries respond to marine mammals in atypical or “out of habitat” waters?

A: NOAA Fisheries oversees a Marine Mammal Stranding Network. We authorize organizations through Stranding Agreements to respond to marine mammals that have beached or entered atypical inshore waterways. In this case, the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) is the authorized local responder, in charge of all response activities and volunteer coordination, operations, and communications. They are supported by NY DEC, US Coast Guard, Town of Hempstead, and NOAA Fisheries. We (NOAA Fisheries) play a support and consultation role, providing expertise, staff, and resources when requested.

Q: What do we know about this whale?

A: This humpback whale, estimated to be about 24-28 feet, was first sighted in Reynolds Channel near Long Beach Bridge by The Nature Conservancy on Friday, November 10, 2017 at 8:45 a.m. AMCS received reports again on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Wednesday, November 15 around 9:30 a.m., an AMCS biologist joined Town of Hempstead Bay Constables on the water to survey the area and observe the whale. It does not appear to be in distress: it appears to be behaving normally, breathing well, and swimming freely. We do not know the whale's gender.

When heading downstream, the on-water teams observed the whale hesitating and not passing under the bridge. This type of behavior is consistent with observations of other humpback whales in inshore waters (Gulland et al. 2008).

Q: Why is this whale here?

A: It’s common to see whales in Long Island waters at this time of the year. At least a half dozen other whales have been seen feeding in nearshore ocean waters, mostly on bunker (menhaden) and herring -- particularly outside Jones Inlet and Reynolds Channel. The whale in Reynolds Channel is a cause for concern because of high vessel traffic, shallower waters, bridges and navigational hazards, and possibly a lack of food.

Q: Can whales be herded out of inshore waters?  

A: Generally, baleen whales observed in atypical locations without signs of human-caused injuries (boat strike or entanglement), are given time to find their way out without intervention. Toothed whales react to sound and can be herded a short distance, but there has not been much success herding baleen whales out of inshore waters (see, for example Gulland et al. 2008). Baleen whales may initially react in response to redirection efforts, but the response wasn't sustained. Past attempts have not resulted in creating any strong directional reaction and sometimes seem to habituate to the herding attempt. And if out of habitat whales are ill or distressed, herding attempts can cause additional stress.

Gulland et al. (2008) indicated that “Despite use of a variety of stimuli and herding techniques, there was no clear association between when whales moved past apparent hurdles in the river and the use of different interventions.” They concluded that, “Based on the observations of the responses of these two whales to intervention, and a review of anecdotal descriptions of other mysticete whales in unusual locations, management of similar events in the future should focus on protection of the animals from disturbance and ship strikes, rather than attempting to herd them. The whale(s) should be allowed time to explore their habitat and discover exit routes without efforts to drive them out…”

Stranding network responders concerned that whales are remaining too long and that remaining may compromise the whale’s health, may on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with NOAA Fisheries, may attempt to redirect or herd the whale. In each case, logistical issues must be considered, including resources available to responders but also whether the waterway is clear of shoals or navigational hazards, how far from an inlet the whale is, and what vessel traffic is like in the area. Any plan must consider first and foremost the safety of the responders, and next whether an attempt to herd the whale may do more harm than good (for example, strand the whale or redirect it further upstream). 

If herding is to be attempted, options considered include redirecting the whales with noise (banging pipes, electronic pingers) or physically herding the whale with boats or with fireboat spray.

Q: How often has NOAA or a stranding network member tried to move a large whale into deeper water?

A: At this time, we have not quantified how often herding has been attempted on large whales in inshore or shallow water. For these free-swimming out of habitat large whales, NOAA and stranding responders have attempted herding whales that exhibited declining health conditions or were in situations of high risk (e.g., at a port). For baleen whales, these herding attempts have been unsuccessful, but we continue to strive to identify and evaluate new techniques that may work in specific situations in the future. We also provide on-water safety and public outreach to try and keep a space around the animal to give it room to maneuver and prevent interference in the animal’s movement out of the area.

Since 2014, we have only attempted limited interventions for live whales stranded in extremely shallow water. Stranding responders have tried to create waves using boat wakes to give the whale a little more water. We hope whales without underlying health problems can make robust attempts to get themselves refloated. Once, when a sperm whale calf was clearly suffering, we supported it with straps under the body to move it a short distance to shallower water to be euthanized.

Earlier this year, a juvenile gray whale in the Pacific Northwest was refloated with the assistance of an improvised harness. Earlier this month a juvenile minke whale was refloated with the assistance of pontoons. 

We continue to explore tool and technique development for interventions in cases where it is considered the medically-appropriate course of action. A recent workshop was held at the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Biennial Conference on refloating techniques for live stranded large whales. Information gathered from workshop participants is being collated and will be used for future responses.

Each of these responses improves our ability to respond to live strandings, although success depends on condition of the whale, location, sea state, and many other case-specific factors.

Q: Can the whale be towed out of the waterway?

A: Moving whales has safety risks for the whale and the human responders (especially inexperienced members of the public), and can be very resource intensive. In the best case scenario, where response is not limited by resources, we still have limited tools to safely move a large whale. Towing live whales by the tail can result in injuring or dislocating the tail, causing paralysis.

YouTube videos of “successful” whale refloatings and towing generally involve putting a rope or cable around the peduncle/tail of the animal and pulling it off of a beach/sandbar via boat. Based on input from veterinarians (including discussions at IWC-hosted stranding response meetings on this subject), this action is likely to cause pain and physical harm to the animal. It can injure tail muscles, reducing the ability of the whale to swim, feed, and avoid predators, or in a worst case scenario, break the spinal cord, which could paralyze the animal. Attempt to tow also poses significant human safety concerns, as the responders need to be close to the fluke in order to attach the tow rope - in this case all while standing in water. Responders have been badly injured by fluke smacks from smaller whales on dry beaches, and earlier this year a Canadian responder was killed while disentangling a whale..

Stranding network responders in the US and internationally are at the very early stages of developing a testing protocol to prepare for safe refloating/movement of a live whale using flotation assistance (pontoons, etc.) and/or a harness/rigging. Given the location of the humpback whale in Reynolds Channel, including navigational barriers and inlet challenges, this whale would not be an obvious candidate for a harness system even if it existed.