Imagine looking out your window and seeing a whale swim by. That’s the sight that’s greeted some surprised New York City residents recently. In the past year, humpback whales have been spotted in the two rivers that surround the island of Manhattan, the Hudson River and the East River. Last December, one even swam past Gracie Mansion, where New York City’s mayor lives.
Why are these massive mammals—they can weigh up to 80,000 pounds—hanging around the big city? Experts say that river cleanup efforts have improved water quality and led to an increase in the number of fish there. Fish are on the humpback’s menu. The extra food in the rivers is likely what’s attracting the whales. The sightings are also an encouraging sign that conservation efforts are helping humpback whales rebound. In 1973, the species was listed as endangered (in danger of becoming extinct). Now scientists say humpbacks are making a comeback.
By the middle of the 20th century, commercial whaling (hunting whales for profit) had nearly wiped out many whale species, including humpback whales. In 1973, the U.S. created the Endangered Species Act, and included humpback whales and other whale species on its list of endangered species. People were no longer allowed to hunt them in U.S. waters. In 1982, the International Whaling Commission made commercial whaling illegal worldwide.
These efforts to save whales are paying off. In September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) announced that the populations of nine groups of humpback whales in different areas of the world have increased and that they are no longer endangered. Four groups are still endangered and a fifth is threatened.
“The success story is the result of a lot of hard work and effort over the last 40 years,” says Angela Somma. She is the head of NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division. “It shows that if species are protected and we address their threats, many of these species can recover.”
Today there are about 100,000 humpback whales worldwide. They are doing particularly well in the Southern Hemisphere, the half of Earth that is south of the equator. And the humpback population in Hawaii has made an amazing recovery. In 1966, there were fewer than 1,500 humpbacks there. Today there are about 10,000. But humpbacks in other parts of the world are still struggling. For example, the Arabian Sea population has only about 80 humpbacks.
Scientists say the focus now needs to be on the humpback populations that are still struggling. “We still have work to do,” says Somma. “But with the right protection, the humpback whale populations should continue to grow.”