Rockaway’s Marine Life

 Rockaway’s Marine Life

By Katie McFadden

Rockaway’s waters are abundant with wildlife. Some people may not be familiar with the neighbors that can be seen in our waters and on our beaches, many that come with special protections. Due to legislation, things like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) have led to cleaner waters in our area due to less sewage being dumped, better protections for our marine life, and fishing restrictions have allowed for baitfish populations to grow again. This means more marine life in our area in recent years, including whales, dolphins, seals, and yes, sharks.


The most common whale you can see in Rockaway’s waters, now year-round, are humpback whales. These mainly black whales have white undersides. They are baleen whales, so they don’t have teeth. They have a small, knobby fin near their tail, hence the name. The humpback whale’s population has made a comeback and thanks to an abundance of their favorite food, menhaden (also called bunker), in our waters, it has become more common to see whales feeding right off our beaches or further out while on boats. Known as the “acrobats of the sea,” these large whales, growing up to 56 feet long and weighing up to 40 tons, love to put on a show, often lunging from the water to catch a mouthful of baitfish, or even giving a full body breach. As humpback whales are protected under the ESA and the MMPA, if you spot one while on the water, stay at least 100 yards away. Unfortunately, many times due to ship strikes, some whales have washed up dead on our beaches.

Other whale species that can be seen in local waters include minke whales, sperm whales, fin whales, sei whales and the endangered North Atlantic right whale.


Dolphins also love to feed off the abundance of bunker here. The most common species you’ll see are friends of “Flipper”—the bottlenose dolphin. Bottlenose dolphins are mostly gray, have an extended snout, giving them their name, and a curved dorsal fin. They are a toothed mammal and can grow from about 6.5 feet to 13 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,300 pounds. On any given day, you might see a handful to even hundreds of bottlenose dolphins traveling together, while out on a boat or right from your beach chair. They are also protected under the MMPA, so stay at least 50 yards away.

Some other species you may see here include common dolphins, pilot whales, and Risso’s dolphins, and their much smaller cousin, the harbor porpoise.


California may have sea lions, but Rockaway has seals. They visit our waters when it gets a little cooler, so you may see them from fall to late spring. The most common species here are harbor and gray seals, and the occasional harp seal. Harbor seals (common seals), are mostly light brown or gray with dark spots, have a round head and a blunt snout. Gray seals have a mottled gray or brownish-gray coat with darker patches and a flat head with an elongated muzzle. Harbor seals are smaller, ranging from four to six feet long and weighing between 150 and 300 pounds, while gray seals can range from six to 11 feet long and can weigh up to 880 pounds.

While these mammals are sea creatures, unlike whales or dolphins, if you see one on the beach, they’re likely okay. Seals tend to haul out on land to rest. So, if you see one, do not attempt to move it back into the water. You risk harming yourself and the seal, as these guys can bite. Also protected under the MMPA, you must stay 50 yards away if you see one.


Yes, sharks live in the ocean. There are 13 shark species around New York waters. From your nonaggressive sand tigers, sandbar and dusky sharks closer to shore, to bigger species like threshers and smooth hammerheads, to more aggressive species, makos and great whites, sharks have made their presence known in recent years. In 2020, a thresher washed up on shore. Spinner sharks that leap out of the water have been putting on a show. And last summer, unfortunately, a juvenile great white confused a woman for prey on a murky evening, marking Rockaway’s first shark attack in more than 70 years. That time gap indicates the rarity of shark attacks, so have no fear. Just steer clear of groups of fish, avoid swimming at dusk, dawn or night, avoid murky water and always swim or surf in groups.

If you see any of our sea creatures in distress or deceased, please keep your distance, don’t interfere, and notify the New York Stranding Response Hotline at (631) 369-9829.

Photos by Katie McFadden and Don Riepe.

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