Humpback Whales Off New York Coast


UPDATED: Sunday August 24, 2014 6:05 AM

CBS NEWS - The waters just off New York City are home to some terrific tourist attractions - the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, some of the best views of the Manhattan skyline.

But these days, they're all taking a back seat to the excitement generated by a splash and a spout.

Four miles off New York City's Rockaway Beach, a 35-foot humpback whale is taking the collective breath away from a boatload of whale watchers.

"They jumped off and saw me and waved her fin at me!" says a boy named Timmy.

"I just think it's so cool that they just go up like that and they go right back in!" marvels Eric, another young whale watcher.

"It's been the best-kept secret in New York for some time now and I think people are catching on," says researcher Paul Sieswerda.

Sieswerda counts humpback whales in and around New York City, and they're on the rise.

"We're just like the old whalers. Same methodology, high on the boat, looking out, trying to find a whale," he says.

His group, Gotham Whale, has identified at least 52 whale sightings this summer in the New York area. That's almost double from two years ago.

"We've seen more and more whales every year because the return of the menhaden. Menhaden is their prey fish and they feed on these animals," Sieswerda says.

The increased food supply and cleaner water are not only good news for researchers, but also for photographers like Artie Raslich.

He's getting pictures no one else ever has. A photo he took this summer of a whale aligned with the Empire State Building went viral.

"I am taking the photo, and it started getting by the Empire State Building, and here comes this whale, straight up. But it didn't lunge. It spy hopped, which means it kicked its tail and stood there for a second, and I rattled off a whole bunch of shots, and I got a shot!" Raslich says.

"Out here, it's totally unexpected, so when a whale surfaces, and everyone sees it, it's just something remarkable," says Sieswerda.

The uncommonly high numbers of whales in New York are certainly giving photographers plenty of material. But maybe more importantly, they're allowing a whole new generation to make the acquaintance of these majestic mammals.

The sightseeing trips have become so popular in New York that the company that runs them is extending them for another month.