By Ilana Siyance
The New York harbor is now cleaner than it has been for the past 110 years, according to a new report by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. The last time the waters have been this clean, Albert Einstein had just put out his theory of relativity. The humpback whales popping up on our shores are further evidence to the less polluted waters. The oversized creatures are back, gliding past the Empire State’s five boroughs. They have followed the menhaden, or bunker fish, which are now more and more attracted to New York’s purer waters.
As reported by the NY Post, in 2011 only five humpback whales were identified in the waters off New York harbor. Last year, the number of whales spotted soared to 209. The year 2010 was actually the first time whales were confirmed in our parts of the water for more than a whole decade.
Paul Sieswerda, who has worked as a curator for the New England and New York aquariums since the late 1960s, was ready to retire in 2009. “But then the humpback whales started showing up,” he says. In 2010, several boaters swore to Sieswerda, 77, that they had seen a whale. A year later, Sieswerda started Gotham Whales, a nonprofit which offers sightseeing tours and also gathers data about Atlantic whales. “So far this year, we’ve seen 268 whales,” says Sieswerda, a Staten Island resident. “And we’re barely into August.”
The surge in the 66,000-pound placental marine mammals cannot be an accident. The presence of the whales attests to a change in the local marine life. Our waters are less polluted, so much so that the water is now fit to host a bloom of marine creatures. Many years ago, New York City was the oyster capital of America. Then, the population surge and industrialization infested the water with not only oil slicks and pollution, but also and primarily raw untreated sewage. It choked the oxygen from the water, making it uninhabitable for marine life. Now, we are starting to see improvements, slowly thanks to the implementation of the Clean Water Act of 1972, stricter controls over dumping waste and raw sewage into the harbor, and billions of dollars invested into the city’s sewer infrastructure, which includes the addition of 14 new wastewater treatment plants. Now, New Yorkers are on their way to taking their harbor back.
“This should be bigger news than it is,” says John Waldman, a biologist at Queens College and author of ‘Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor’. “We’ve had a large humpback whale one mile from Times Square. That’s just an astounding victory for the harbor.” “People make a big deal about Central Park,” he added. “But in 2019, New York City’s greatest natural amenity is the harbor.”