Your home turf may not be the first place that comes to mind, however, Long Island is among the best places to go whale watching in the world. The waters beyond the tip of this fish-shaped landmass we call home are home to several species of whales, including humpbacks, fin whales, minke whales and North Atlantic right whales, not to mention dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea turtles, sea birds and even flying fish. Departing from Montauk, Viking Fleet’s five-hour tour is the perfect way to see these creatures when they come to the surface to say hello.
The Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) partners with Viking Fleet to operate whale-watching cruises during the peak season from July 1 through Labor Day. The nonprofit organization conducts research while also educating the public about marine mammals and the environment they live in.
Cofounder, Senior Scientist and President of CRESLI Dr. Artie Kopelman narrates the cruise. Eager to share his 31 years’ worth of knowledge with passengers, he leads the tour with enthusiasm that keeps everyone aboard interested and informed.
“I’ve seen more interest [in recent years]—particularly regarding whales in the western New York Bight area and whale-watching trips and research being conducted by friends in and around New York City,” Kopelman said, noting that CRESLI works closely with researchers all over in order to share knowledge.
A lot has changed since the late 1980s when Kopelman first became a whale-watching volunteer, with Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation. These days, it’s possible to observe up to 20 different fin whales on one trip, but three decades ago, he regularly saw more.
The decrease could have something to do with warming sea temperatures. “Prior to 2009, ‘inshore’ bottlenose dolphins were rarely seen north of New Jersey,” he said. “They are a species that shifted their range northward.”
News is positive and negative for humpback whales. “I’ve seen an increase in near-shore sightings of humpbacks and the species is doing well through much of its range [globally],” Kopelman said.
But he’s also seen a spike in humpback deaths since 2016. A significant number of whales have shown signs of human interaction—evidence of entanglement with ships or being struck by ships. This is why he seeks to educate others.
“Marine mammals are the sentinels of the health of our ocean ecosystems. They are also threatened today…by human activities,” said Kopelman. “Climate change, habitat destruction, unsustainable harvests, ubiquitous plastic pollution, noise pollution and unconstrained resource utilization at the expense of ecosystem services and wildlife is devastating to marine mammals and to all other living things.”
In addition to sharing interesting facts and figures about the animals passengers are seeing, as a naturalist he shares his passion for ocean conservation by offering advice on how to keep the oceans healthy. For example, he warns not to release helium balloons into the air. When mylar and party balloons land in the ocean, they can choke or strangle sea creatures.
He also discussed the practice of “scientific whaling” in countries like Iceland and Japan, which are blatant attempts to circumvent international regulations.
Kopelman is a professor of science and ecology at SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology, where he teaches a course called “Ecology and Environmental Problems: No More Business As Usual.”
“How awful would a world without whales be?” he asked. “We can do better. We must do better to ensure that our children and their children get to live in a healthy world, on a healthy planet, with healthy oceans. We have to change the paradigm and embrace sustainability in all aspects.”
Kopelman has had many memorable experiences during his long career. In 1989, a humpback whale breached right near the ship and, in his surprise, exclaimed a slip of profanity into the microphone.
“I also remember the day in 2015, when we were coming back from a long trip with no whales only to encounter two North Atlantic right whales—the rarest of the baleen whales—just a few miles from Montauk Point,” he added.
In the Long Island area, whale-watching season takes place from July through the beginning of September. The Viking Starship goes out twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, throughout the whole season, barring bad weather.
There’s no bad seat on the Viking Starship. Benches that line the port and starboard sides on the main level and upper deck provide an unobstructed view of the whales when they choose to show themselves. And if you need a brief respite, the seats inside the cabin are a comfortable place to rest.
The cruise takes you about 12 nautical miles off shore, though sightings are possible at any time. The excitement on the adults’ faces match that of the children whenever the boat slows down and everyone rushes to the side of the boat to catch a glimpse. There’s nothing quite as spectacular as seeing a 25-ton creature emerge from the ocean and plunge back in with a great big splash.
There are a few things you should make sure to bring when you take the cruise—a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and an extra layer or two for when it gets chilly or windy out on the water. It’s also a great idea to bring binoculars or a camera, preferably one with a long lens and fast shutter.
Food and beverages are available, including water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soda, beer, breakfast items, sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs. However, you are welcome to pack a lunch and snacks for the journey.
Viking/CRESLI’s whale-watching cruise costs $75 for adults, $49 for children 5-12 and is free for children under the age of 5. Visit vikingfleet.com for schedules and tickets.
For a more immersive whale-watching experience, Viking Fleet and CRESLI also offer 3-day offshore cruises through the Great South Channel to Martha’s Vineyard and back. In winter and spring, the organizations team up again to host seal cruises and walks.
View more of Dr. Artie Kopelman’s incredible cruise photos on Flickr.
For more information about CRESLI, visit cresli.org.