It's been more than 20 years since whales were spotted in the Long Island Sound—and even longer since the last humpback was spied—but that streak was broken this summer in what one maritime expert is calling "the year of the whale," the Hour reports. Boaters off Long Island and Connecticut have been capturing images of belugas, humpbacks, and at least one minke starting in May, when three belugas were seen near Fairfield, Conn. But while the creatures provide perfect photo ops (especially breaching humpbacks), NOAA warns people to keep their distance, the AP notes. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, only one boat can come within 300 feet of a whale, and even then only for 15 minutes, NBC Connecticut reports; it also must reduce speed and tell other boats about the sighting. (An "Ocean Etiquette" guide by NOAA Fisheries offers more tips.)
The biggest question, though, has yet to be definitively answered: Why did the whales return to the Sound after such a long break? Experts believe baitfish-harvesting restrictions and less rainfall (which reduces polluted runoff from entering the waters) may have drawn the whales back, per the AP. The whale expert cited in the Hour adds that a whale who's hurt or sick may also sometimes enter strange waters. Whatever the reasons, local boaters are thrilled. "I was having heart palpitations I was so excited," one tells the AP, while another says he was double-teamed off Stamford, Conn.: "I know for certain that there was more than one whale because the breaching one started to scare me and breached behind the boat while the other whale was in front. I got really scared that it could hit or crush my 27-foot boat. It was about the size of the boat."