Beachgoers in Seabrook, N.H., were treated to a unique wildlife sighting on Labor Day, as a pod of humpback whales was seen feeding close to shore.
Danny Carlo, of Hudson, N.H., was flying a drone at Seabrook Beach when a group of locals sitting near him began to excitedly tell him there was a group of whales swimming directly under where his drone was hovering over the water.
Carlo pointed the camera down at the ocean, and, using his T-shirt for shade under the sun, squinted at the camera feed on his phone and saw what looked to be up to four humpback whales swimming about 800 feet from shore.
“I was just praying it came out good,” he said of his drone footage. “I was just shocked to be able to capture that in nature, pretty much in our own backyard.”
Seeing the whales from shore was difficult, Carlo said, but one could tell where they were by the group of boats gathered around them, following them through the water.
Carlo’s video shows at least two whales, but there were probably four in the pod, he said. He remembers seeing a juvenile and an adult through his phone screen as he zoomed in on them, making sure to keep the drone a safe distance above them.
At least one of the whales was feeding, and he was able to see “massive, absolutely massive schools of fish” from the air, he said.
The whales were likely feeding on menhaden, or pogies, a kind of small schooling fish, when they were spotted. There has been “a tremendous density” of menhaden in the region in the last week, which has raised the likelihood of people like Carlo seeing the whales close to shore, Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, said.
“We’ve seen a lot of whales following pogies coming close to shore,” Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries, said. “Whales typically follow their food.”
Several humpback whales were seen in and around Boston Harbor last week, but there have been no reported sightings in the area since at least Sunday, Brian Fleming, an operations specialist at the United States Coast Guard Sector Boston, said.
The Coast Guard, as well as marine wildlife experts, have been urging people to avoid getting too close to the whales, as doing so could be dangerous to both parties.
“We’re getting a lot more reports closer to shore than is normal, so we’re obviously concerned for the whales’ safety,” Goebel said. “They’re more likely to be in areas with boats and [fishing] lines ... There’s definitely some whale-vessel interactions happening.”
Carlo, who is somewhat of a wildlife enthusiast himself, said he hopes others will heed the advice of the Coast Guard and give marine animals their space when they see them.
“Help these people do their jobs and preserve wildlife,” he said.
Whales are protected under federal law, but humpback whales were removed from the endangered list last year, said Cheri Patterson, supervisor of marine programs for the marine division of New Hampshire Fish and Game.
The number of reported whale sightings along the Northeast coast has been higher than normal this summer, LaCasse said, mainly due to a combination of three factors: the recent abundance of menhaden, a greater concentration of recreational boating traffic, and the ubiquity of cameras on phones, which allows people to more easily report and share their whale encounters.
There are approximately 800 humpback whales dispersed throughout the region between the mid-Atlantic and the Gulf of Maine. An estimated 500,000 people go on whale watching cruises out of Massachusetts every year, and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, which is “commuting distance from downtown Boston,” is considered the eighth-best whale watching site in the world, LaCasse said.Andres Picon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andpicon.