Recent whale sightings off the Jersey Coast, in Raritan Bay and New York Harbor are actually common during this time of year — but photos and videos of them being shared on social media are making them seem to pop up far more frequently than usual, according to Bob Schoelkopf, executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

"They migrate every year about this time. They're heading down to the Silver Banks, which is near Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic, and they go down there by the thousands for the winter to mate and give birth," Schoelkopf said. "But they stop off at any opportune location where there's food — and there happens to be a lot of food in the Raritan Bay at this time of year"

Whales eat any type of schooling fish found in large numbers, such as bunker or bluefish. And Schoelkopf said they eat thousands of pounds at a time.

Schoelkopf said last year, there were whales in Perth Amboy doing the exact same thing — "lunge feeding, coming up with their mouths wide open, collecting large abundance of food." He said that's how they eat, and once they get their fill they'll move out.

Whales go where the food is, but the difficult part, Schoelkopf said, "the boaters that are getting too close to them." He said earlier this month in Belmar, a boat drove past a whale, causing a fisherman to fall inside the vessel.

"These animals are a lot, lot bigger than most of the boats that you have out there, and people have to realize give the a wide berth," Schoelkopf said.

One of the better spots for whale watching currently is off the coast of Cape May, because they're heading south for the winter.

For recreational boaters hoping to catch a glimpse, Schoelkopf cautions, "keep at least 100 yards away from the whale. The whale is unpredictable. It's after food. It doesn't care about a boat being there, so if it decides to lunge out of the water with a mouth full of fish, it could very easily come down on top of a boat."

Close calls, like the Belmar incident, haven't resulted in any people being killed by whales in this area, but Schoelkopf warned it can happen.

"More whales are injured by boaters than the other way around," he said.

Schoelkopf added, smaller pigmy sperm whales and Common dolphins also migrate at this time of year.

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