Dolphins Swimming Close to New York Harbor

Dolphins Swimming Close to New York Harbor

Columns – Old Oak Trail


MONDAY, 06 MAY 2013 22:33

joe_reynoldsNow and then something happens that reminds me just how unpredictable the spring season can be and how living near both an estuary and ocean can be an extraordinary place. A few days ago was just such an occasion.

A small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins were sighted in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred yards off the coast of Sea Bright, a small seaside town situated near the entrance to New York Harbor. What an amazing sight. Living proof that wild nature still exists in the waters around this sprawling metropolis.

It was late afternoon, a strong onshore wind was blowing with gusts up to 20 mph. Air and water temperatures were both in the chilly low to mid 50s. Still, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was shining brightly, so much so that it caused the water to shimmer and sparkle like jewels.

Then out of nowhere, in the distance, there were several long and very robust figures swimming. Not people, but marine mammals.


At first it was tricky to identify these creatures. The flippers, flukes, and dorsal fins were generally dark in the distance. Perhaps they were Common Dolphins or Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, or even a Harbor Porpoise. I attempted to take some pictures, but even that proved complicated. Not knowing exactly where the dolphins would surface for air and their lengthy distance from the shore made attempting to photograph these wild animals a difficult undertaking.

What gave them away, however, was their stubby beaks that appeared like bottles through my binoculars and, of course, their mouth, which had a famous grinning smirk to it. I know it's a clichĂ©, but they really did look like “Flipper” rolling about in the water. Their bodies were long, gray, and sleek , about 8 feet or longer in length, with long flippers and a crescent design to their dorsal fins. Their streamlined bodies moved quickly northward in the cold coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Where they were exactly going was anyone's guess. Bottlenose Dolphins have been known to cover great distances for reasons still unknown to marine mammal experts. Where they came from is probably easier to answer.

According to scientists from the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Bottlenose Dolphins in New Jersey waters are migratory. During the winter the dolphins will spend most of their time in southern temperate waters as far south as North Carolina and then return to New Jersey in late April or early May and remain here until September or October before travelling south again. Occasionally, individuals or groups of Bottlenose Dolphins may remain in coastal waters near New Jersey into the winter when fish populations are abundant.


The largest population of Bottlenose Dolphins in New Jersey can be found near Cape May. Hundreds of dolphins reproduce in the waters around Delaware Bay during spring, summer and early fall. It's not unusual to see more than 300 dolphins including newly born young swimming at one time offshore from Cape May.

At Sea Bright, about 5 or 6 Bottlenose Dolphins were putting on quite a show for a handful of people on the beach. For about 20 minutes, these beautiful intelligent aquatic mammals would rise and dip so gracefully. They would appear and then disappear about every forty feet. Perhaps they were following a school of herring.

Although sightings of Bottlenose Dolphins have become more frequent in or near New York Harbor, these marine mammals are still rare enough to make a glimpse of one the highlight of the week.

Yet, for Bottlenose Dolphins, swimming in urban waters is not so pleasant, it's full of danger and risks. From water pollution in the shape of plastics that dolphins mistake for food and get stuck in their stomachs, to underwater noise pollution from ships and construction equipment that can cause dolphins to go deaf, to overfishing of aquatic species that dolphins depend on to feed and sustain their lives, to toxins in the water from oil spills and other industrial accidents that cause disease or major die-offs of dolphins. Offshore energy development can also destroy dolphin habitat or forcibly move dolphins that would normally use an area to feed or rest. It's a stressful life for sure.

Fortunately, Bottlenose Dolphins are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which makes it a crime for anyone to harm, hurt, or harass any marine mammal within the United States. Even though Bottlenose Dolphins are not considered endangered or threatened in this country, it's still illegal to disturb them in any way. The best way to see a dolphin or marine mammal is wild and free, and in its own watery home.


To help protect Bottlenose Dolphins, please keep coastlines clean and free of plastics. Make sure local waters are not restricted with offshore development and noise pollution. Help to preserve a healthy and biological rich ocean.

To report an injured or ill-treated marine mammal, call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in New Jersey at 609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631- 369-9829.


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