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A breaching whale off Deal Beach, N.J. / Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, courtesy of Merryl Richards

ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- Don and Merryl Richards were fishing off the coast of Deal on Monday when they were visited by a large sea creature of the deep.

"We heard this spout sound and we turn around and there was a whale," said Merryl Richards, 61, of Livingston. "We just stopped fishing and enjoyed the show."

Richards said the whale breached three of four times, each time with hundreds of menhaden, an oily bait fish, in its mouth. She estimates the whale was bigger than the 33-foot boat they were in.

"We've traveled to Alaska, Australia and Boston and have seen them, and this was as good a show as any," Richards said.

In the last week there has been quite a show off the coast as whales in the middle of their annual migration have dazzled many by breaching the surface and landing with thunderous splashes.

"To think you can pay for tickets to Sea World to see whales, but they're right here off the coast," said Mike Brown, 41, of Manasquan. Brown and his family saw a whale from their boat a mile off Mantoloking Beach on June 7.

The following Sunday, a father and daughter were kayaking off the Lavallette beach when a whale came within 30 feet of one of their kayaks.

The proximity of people to the whales during the migration makes Bob Schoelkopf, Founding director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, a little nervous.

He warns that while it might be tempting to follow the whales, some people are getting too close because a whale can become very aggressive. Especially mothers protecting calves.

"A 50-foot whale can take its tail and sink a 20-foot boat. A kayaker could be a sitting duck," he said.

The whales are more plentiful off the coast now because of the annual spring migration. But exactly how long they will be here the experts aren't sure. It could be a week, a month or possibly longer.

"(The) whales that you see along the coast are moving from their southern winter grounds to their northern summer grounds," said Jackie Toth Sullivan, a marine biology professor at Stockton State College.

"There have been a number of humpback whale sightings close to the shoreline," said Sullivan. "Other whales passing through the area are right whales, minke whales and fin whales, but these typically occur a bit more offshore than humpback whales."

Sullivan said the whales are filter feeders and don't have teeth. They are feeding on tiny plankton and small fishes.

All whales and dolphins are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and some of these are designated as endangered by the endangered species act said Sullivan.

"The right whale in particular is considered highly endangered. By law, boaters are supposed to keep a distance of 100 feet from whales (and) 500 yards from right whales," Sullivan said.

Scientists estimate there are only around 300 right whales left.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Migrating whales dazzle boaters off N.J. coast

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