How I Sea: Paul Sieswerda, Founder of Gotham Whale

Source: The TerraMar Project - January 17, 2018 in Featured, TMP

How I Sea: Paul Sieswerda, Founder of Gotham Whale
Photo: Michael Unhold, Used with permission of author.

Gotham (a.k.a. New York City) is more than just a center of global commerce and a melting pot of cultures. It’s actually home to some of the largest animals on Earth, whales!

And there’s one whale in particular that has caught the world’s attention, the Gotham Whale.

We spoke with Paul Sieswerda to learn more about this incredible story, and to hear about the work he and his team are doing to track whales around New York Harbor.

Gotham Whale

Photo: Paul Seiswerda Gotham Whale

Paul is a retired Aquarium Curator who has dedicated his free time to founding Gotham Whale, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning more about the migrations of marine mammals around the New York area, and connecting communities here to marine life.

What motivated you to first join the field of marine science as an Aquarium Curator? That must have been an incredibly interesting path!

Interestingly enough, I actually became captivated by the field of marine science not through the ocean, but through my curiosities about Space.

When I was growing up it felt like the age of exploration. Big things were happening outside of Planet Earth for the first time! But I realized that there was a whole other world to be explored right here on our own planet, the ocean!

I grew up seeing people like Sylvia Earle and Jacques Cousteau uncover this world that nobody yet knew much about. I felt that the blue part of our planet probably contained life more fascinating than anything we could hope to find in outer space.

So I started from the bottom at the New England Aquarium as a volunteer, and worked my way up the ladder. Now I have 41 years of experience as an Aquarium Curator, and I couldn’t be more happy of the decisions I’ve made to spend my life in this field.

Why start to Gotham Whale? And what are some of your goals for the near future?

The decision to start Gotham Whale came after my retirement, and was really a natural progression for me. I was just taking one step in front of the other.

I was living on Staten Island and heard that a ferry called The American Princess was looking for an experienced naturalist to come on board and help survey local marine life.

What first caught my eye was the abundance of seals in the area. New York is known to have both Harbor Seals and Gray Seals as seasonal visitors, and that first Summer I noticed something bigger (literally). I observed 5 different whales right off the coast.

I thought to myself, this is a great opportunity to help to track these animal’s movements around New York, and more importantly get the public involved.

Gotham Whale

Onboard the American Princess. Photo: Gotham Whale

How have you seen the marine environment that you study change in your lifetime? Both in general and in the context of your work?

What I’m seeing now in New York is a slow motion replay of what I experienced firsthand while working in New England. And that’s a shift in the seal species.

When I was working in Massachusetts, originally the gray seals there would spend Winters off the coast of Cape Cod, and then migrate back North to the Maine area where they would spend each Spring and Summer.

What I began to notice as time went by was that the gray seals were spending more and more time on Cape Cod, eventually becoming year-round residents. Since gray seals are more aggressive than harbor seals, they came to dominate the area and I was eventually only seeing gray seals for the most part.

Fast forward to today, I suspect that an eerily similar trend is unfolding around New York. Right now, the area is still dominated by the abundant harbor seals. However I’m beginning to see the signs of a similar shift taking place, as more and more gray seals are coming south. This is something we hope to help document and understand at Gotham Whale.

Another trend I’ve been noticing is an increase in humpback whales around New York since we first began in 2009. My thoughts are that the whales are here for one reason: Atlantic Menhaden.

Menhaden are the base of the food web here in New York and much of the Northeast. And they are crucial for the whales. Thanks to conservation efforts the Menhaden populations have seen rebounds in recent years, and I really think the whales have been coming here chasing their favorite food. The Hudson River is a crucial habitat for these fish, and the whales are along for the ride.

One last note: New York’s waterways have cleaned up tremendously over the years. Ask any local and they would agree.

What do you believe is the biggest threat to the marine environment around NY? And why?

In the Northeast, it’s become clear to me that when you mess with the base of the food web, everyone and everything suffers. And by base, I’m speaking about Atlantic Menhaden again here.

So my first answer would be that overfishing of forage fish is the greatest risk to New York’s marine environment.

For the whales in the Northeast, NOAA has actually declared 2016-2018 a time period of ‘Unusual Mortality’. Even though we’ve been seeing more and more whales spend time in the NYC area, we’ve also seen an alarming number of deaths.

And over half of the necropsies performed on the deceased whales have one common denominator: shipping.

Gotham Whale

Photo: Brian Yurasits

Nearshore, we don’t see very many collisions with the whales, I believe because the ships are required to reduce their speed. The noise pollution from the ship traffic could be harming the whales nearshore in my opinion, as many whales near NY Harbor are often seen ‘playing in traffic’.

Entanglement in gill-nets and pot traps is also a major concern for the whales here. You won’t see as many entanglements in lobster traps off New York’s coast as you would up North more, but these animals are still encountering fishing gear at an alarming rate.

marine debris

Photo: Brian Yurasits

How do you think the story of the Gotham Whale that swam up the Hudson River can reach people in NYC, who sometimes might feel disconnected to nature.

That was just such an incredible story, the kind of thing that made everyone in the biggest city in the world think twice about where they live. And how ocean giants can come even here, right at their doorstep.

We actually had so many of your Average Joe’s report to us the location of the whale and send us pictures that allowed us to collect real time scientific information on the event!

It proved not only that Gotham has wildlife, but that anybody can be a marine scientist if they want.

Do you have any advice for educators in urban areas (with less direct access to marine environments) to get their students more engaged with ocean conservation?

My advice is pretty simple. Give the people something to cheer for.

Instead of the typical ‘Doom and Gloom’ message that we all-too-often see, bring some hope into the world of marine science. Especially in cities.

And provide these students with any means possible to connect directly with the natural environment. Field trips can be key.

Gotham Whale

Statue of Liberty. Photo: Bobby Ghoshal/Unsplash

A student can see a video in a classroom of some massive whale breaching the water in some far-off ocean that they know they’ll never see firsthand. But when you bring these kids out and show them a whale in real life, that sticks with them forever. You don’t forget something like that.

What’s one everyday thing that you believe any individual could do better to conserve the marine environment?

I have hope for the future of New York City’s natural areas because I’ve seen firsthand how this place has cleaned up through the years. But there’s still work to be done.

I see balloons way too often along all of New York’s coastlines. People just don’t seem to realize that when they let a balloon go, it doesn’t disappear, it pops and ultimately ends up on our beaches and in our oceans. And the scary thing is that animals will mistake these balloons for food and it really can harm these animals.

So stop celebrating with balloons outdoors, especially in the Summer, it’s just not necessary.

Also anybody, no matter how old you are, can participate in local citizen science projects. These are great ways to get involved in the field, and to help scientists collect very valuable data that can actually help to save so many marine environments by helping us to understand them better.

How I Sea is a new effort by The TerraMar Project to dive into the minds of our global ocean community. We highlight opinions on conservation issues such as: marine pollution, overfishing, drilling, climate change, marine protected areas, scientific discoveries, and much more. Stay tuned for more.

Sign up today to become a citizen of our global ocean community and sign up for your very own passport to the world’s ocean by visiting us at: www.theterramarproject.org

Print article