The Harbor Porpoises Are Here, Putting Up With the Noise

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll find out about harbor porpoises, which have made New York a year-round destination — to the surprise of researchers who tracked them. We’ll also see what investigators found at the Long Island home of the architect charged in the Gilgo Beach killings.

Credit…Ari S. Friedlaender

Melinda Rekdahl says harbor porpoises are smallish and shy, but her research team’s more important finding is more basic: They are here year-round.

“Here” means in New York Harbor, where Rekdahl’s team from the Wildlife Conservation Society planted listening devices that recorded these underwater chatterboxes. The clicking sounds they make when swimming around, looking for fish to gobble up or just communicating with each other are far above the frequencies of the highest, screechiest notes on a violin. Human ears cannot pick them up.

But the recorders did. The data from the devices established that small numbers of harbor porpoises are around when most have gone elsewhere — and that the numbers swell from February to June.

Those seasonal peaks are significant, Rekdahl said, because they could guide policies for offshore wind farm construction. A 2006 study showed that harbor porpoises moved away from sites where offshore wind farms were being set up. Rekdahl said one way to protect the porpoises might be to shift construction schedules, but that more study and analysis of other species in the harbor was needed.

The porpoises’ universe is like the city itself. Every day in New York brings an incursion of garbage trucks, jackhammers and car alarms. And that’s just above ground.

Underwater, where quiet-loving harbor porpoises swim, there is engine noise from vessels traversing some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

It’s noisy beneath the surface — so noisy, Rekdahl said, that the researchers thought there wouldn’t be porpoises there.

At least not at the times they actually appeared. The presence of the porpoises throughout the year suggests that some of them are getting used to higher levels of disturbance — or are so hungry they endure the noise to find food.

And they are eating machines. They can go only about 12 hours without taking on food. They look for fish that are abundant in the harbor. Harbor porpoises also tend to be present where levels of a particular type of chlorophyll are higher, according to a paper by Rekdahl and other scientists who worked on the project. The paper was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Harbor porpoises like to swim in small groups, Rekdahl said. They are typically about five feet long and weigh about 130 pounds. They are hard to see, she said, and bob to the surface quickly. Earlier studies had determined that about 60 percent of the harbor porpoises in the New York area came from the Bay of Fundy in Canada or the Gulf of Maine. Smaller proportions come from Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada and from Greenland.

“They come into bays and estuaries for part of the year, then move offshore,” Rekdahl said. “They do move around quite a bit, but the fact that they do this in bays and estuaries means they do come into contact with humans.” Increased levels of underwater noise can drive them away or at least reduce the time they spend foraging, which could affect the size of the population.

Harbor porpoises are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, but New York State considers them a “species of special concern.” The most recent verified sightings in the New York area were in 2019, though they were farther offshore than the area covered by the listening devices set out by the conservation society team.

Reducing the speed of ships would reduce the noise beneath the surface — and would probably mean fewer collisions with animals like harbor porpoises. “The faster a ship goes, the greater the chance it can hit a marine mammal,” Rekdahl said, though vessel strikes are more of an issue for larger mammals like whales. Engine-quieting technology for ships is costly, Rekdahl said.

Still, the two recorders that picked up the most harbor porpoise activity were away from major shipping lanes. The battery-powered listening devices spent two years in relatively shallow water, from about 23 feet to just over 39 feet.

Two other recorders that were even farther from shipping lanes — where conditions presumably would have been quieter — showed the least activity. That could have been a sign of other sources of noise in those places, including localized weather events, recreational vessels and development.


It’s a sunny day with temperatures in the upper 80s. At night, it’s mostly clear with a low in the mid-70s.


In effect until Aug. 15 (Feast of the Assumption).

The latest New York news

Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times
  • Lack of transparency: Under pressure to stem violence in New York City jails, the commissioner of the Department of Correction, Louis Molina, has angered federal officials by withholding information on sensitive investigations.

  • Pete Davidson crash case: Pete Davidson, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, reached an agreement on a reckless driving charge in California by agreeing to community service with the New York Fire Department.

  • Tech firms scaling back: The tech sector has been a driver of New York’s economy since the late ’90s. Now many technology companies are laying off workers and giving up millions of square feet of office space in the city.

Living in New York

  • Recognition for community gardens: Lawmakers in Albany passed a bipartisan bill to designate community gardens as crucial land that aids in the fight against climate change.

  • School district water woes: Students and staff members in the East Ramapo Central School District, about 30 miles north of New York City, cannot drink the tap water in any of the public school buildings.

  • Paint replaces clothes: The 10th — and last — NYC Bodypainting Day, a public art exhibition, was held on Sunday. Sixty people paid $100 to become mostly nude human canvases for 40 artists.

Search of Gilgo Beach suspect’s home: 279 weapons and backyard ‘disturbances’

Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Investigators have been excavating the backyard of the Long Island architect charged in the Gilgo Beach serial murder case after finding what the district attorney called “disturbances” that might be buried objects.

The Suffolk County district attorney, Raymond Tierney, also announced a finding from inside the rundown house in Massapequa Park, N.Y. He said that the suspect, Ray Heuermann, had a weapons vault in the basement. Tierney said Heuermann had used it to store most of the 279 weapons investigators found in the house. The collection exceeded the 92 guns covered by permits Heuermann held, authorities said.

Heuermann has been charged with killing three women whose bodies were found in 2010 along Gilgo Beach on Long Island’s South Shore and is the prime suspect in a fourth murder. The authorities have not said how the women were killed. Tierney was asked at a news conference at the house whether anyone had died there. “We haven’t ruled in or out anything,” he said.

Tierney said much of the investigation so far had focused on the so-called Gilgo Four. He said his team was “working toward” filing charges in the fourth case, but the necessary analysis would take time. “A 13-year-old cold case doesn’t get solved in a matter of weeks or days,” he said.

Tierney said investigators had taken “a massive amount of material” from the house — including the arsenal in the gun vault, which included some long guns. The Suffolk County police commissioner, Rodney Harrison, called the search “fruitful.” Heuermann, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held without bail.


Her bag

Dear Diary:

I was walking to the 6 train on a winter day after spending a few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I decided to stop for a cup of tea and a bagel with a schmear.

I found a small table next to two sisters who were engaged in a lively conversation and appeared to be in their 20s.

An older woman sat down on the other side of them. One of the younger women complimented her on her purse.

“That’s an Alexander McQueen bag,” the woman replied. “It cost me hundreds of dollars and I absolutely hate it!”

She proceeded to empty the bag’s contents onto the small table where she was sitting.

“I’m giving you the bag,” she said, putting it in front of the younger woman who had admired it. “I don’t want it any longer.”

The younger woman was clearly taken aback.

“I can’t take your bag!” she said.

“I insist,” the older woman said, stuffing the emptied contents into an old, worn backpack and then walking out of the shop.

— Julie Livingston

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero, Mathew Brownstein and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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