Endangered sei whale dies near Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in possible ship strike

sei whale
An endangered sei whale died near the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook on May 4.
Photo courtesy of Christin Khan/NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

An endangered sei whale died in what may have been a ship strike at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook on Saturday.

The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the 44-foot-whale was found dead on the front of the cruise ship MSC Meraviglia in the Port of Brooklyn on May 4. 

It was not immediately clear how the whale died — it may have been killed when it was hit by the 1,036-foot-long ship, or may already have been injured or dead at the time of the strike.

cruise ship docked at brooklyn cruise terminal whale death
The MSC Meraviglia, which reported the dead whale caught on its bow, docked at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating the incident, said spokesperson Andrea Gomez, and the whale was necropsied on May 7. In a Facebook post, the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society — which is working with NOAA and other state and federal authorities on the case — said the necropsy found tissue trauma along the whale’s right shoulder blade and a fracture in the right flipper. The whale’s stomach was full of food when it died. 

Scientists took various tissue samples, which will help determine if the whale was dead or alive before it was struck, AMSEAS said. 

An MSC Cruises spokesperson confirmed the whale was found on the bow of its ship as it approached the Port of New York, and said the company notified authorities immediately.

We are deeply saddened by the loss of any marine life,” the rep said. “We have comprehensive measures in place to help avoid collisions, such as training all our deck officers with the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) and we follow regulations designed to protect whales and other marine life. This includes altering itineraries in certain regions to avoid whales and we will continue to evaluate and update our procedures with our partners and the authorities.”

Sei whales, which can grow to be up to 60 feet long and have a lifespan of 50 to 70 years, used to be abundant in the U.S. and around the world, but up to 300,000 of them were killed by commercial whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to NOAA.

Now considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act, scientists don’t know the exact number of sei whales living in U.S. waters — though an estimated 6,000 were reported to be living near the East Coast in the mid-2010s, according to NOAA. 

While whaling is now largely prohibited, human activity still poses a huge threat to sei whales and other whale species — ship strikes and fishing nets often kill or injure whales.

whale in new york bight
A humpback whale, one of five whales living in the New York Bight. File photo courtesy of Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

At least 16 large whales have died along the East Coast so far this year, according to the Associated Press, and 82 died in 2023. According to a report by the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, 11 whales were killed by suspected or confirmed ship strikes in New York and New Jersey last year, but none were sei whales. In 2016, a sei whale beached itself and died near the Brooklyn Army Terminal. At that time, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson told Brooklyn Paper it was “unusual” to find sei whales beyond The Narrows, unless they were caught and dragged in my a ship. 

Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Ocean Giants Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told Brooklyn Paper that little is known about sei whales in New York and New Jersey. But, he said, acoustic monitoring shows that the whales have a low-level presence in the area all year, with a peak in March through May. 

During a three-year whale monitoring project by the state’s Department of Conservation, two groups of sei whales were spotted in the New York Bight in 2018 and 2019. 

“While the investigation into the suspected cause of death for this sei whale is still on-going, the risks to large whales from ship-strikes remain a great concern in our region,” Rosenbaum said.

In an email, Gomez said NOAA encourages mariners traveling along the East Coast to slow down, stay alert, and report any injured or dead whales.

The MSC Meraviglia — the ship the whale was found caught on — docked in Red Hook for the first time last spring. It is the first cruise ship to launch from the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal year-round.

Update 5/9/24, 10:20 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional information from AMSEAS.