Ronnie Pringle of Greenport couldn’t believe his eyes Thursday.
He was at Sixth Street Beach in the village when he looked out over the water and spotted something highly unusual.
“I saw a geyser and then what looked like the hump on a whale,” he said. “Then it came full out of the water.”
Mr. Pringle is one of several people who spoke with The Suffolk Times Thursday to report the whale sighting. He said he saw it around 3:30 p.m.
U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Peter Winters confirmed the sightings, saying Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation volunteers have identified the mammal as a Northern Right Whale, a federally endangered species.
North Ferry general manager Bridg Hunt said a member of his morning crew also saw the whale Thursday.
“He came to tell me and he was so excited,” Mr. Hunt said. “He told me the whale was swimming alongside the boat.”
Mr. Hunt said a whale sighting is extremely rare for the ferry company, which connects Greenport to Shelter Island, and he couldn’t recall another instance of it in recent years.
Mr. Pringle said it was like something “on the Discovery Channel.”
“I told a couple people who looked at me like I told them I saw a space ship,” the Second Street resident said.
Mr. Pringle said he didn’t run to get his camera because he didn’t want to take his eyes off the mammal, which has no dorsal fin, before it swam away.
Mr. Winters said the whale doesn’t appear to be stranded. “It is swimming freely,” he said.
Riverhead Foundation officials estimated the whale to be between 40 and 50 feet long. The Coast Guard has issued a “safety marine broadcast” to alert boaters that a whale is in the area, Mr. Winters said.
“[Boaters] have to stay 500 yards away from it if it’s sighted, as it is a protected species,” he said.
Officials are hoping the whale successfully passes Gardiners Bay and heads back into the ocean.
The Northern Right whale weighs up to 70 tons, reaching about 50 feet in length, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The state DEC estimates the population to total no more than 600 individuals, 300 to 350 of which can be found in the North Atlantic Ocean.
This type of whale is more rare than the humpback whale, of which between 2,000 to 4,000 remain in the western North Atlantic. In August, the Wildlife Conservation Society released a photo of a humpback whale feeding in the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles from New York City. CBS News reported in August that there were more than 50 whale sightings reported near the city this summer.