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Whale in New York Harbor

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A 20-foot humpback whale has been causing quite a stir in metro-area waters during the last 24 hours.

Spotted off Rockaway Beach on Wednesday, the whale headed into New York Harbor early Thursday, only to head back out again, last seen making its way toward Coney Island, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard is maintaining a "safety zone" around the whale in an effort to protect it from boaters and ships - and protect boaters from it.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has a team responding to the scene to assess the condition of the whale.

The foundation, authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine life sightings.

In a prepared statement released Thursday, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Teri Frady said: "Several species of large whales are found off the mid-Atlantic and even close to shore this time of year, including humpbacks, fin whales, right whales, and minke whales. Our current priority is to get a positive species identification, and to do an assessment of the animal's health and the local environment."

It was at about 8 p.m. Wednesday that the Coast Guard sent a boat crew to look for the whale off Rockaway Beach. Area residents had reported a whale attempting to beach itself.

That search was called off at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

But early Thursday the Coast Guard said the whale had been spotted in a shipping channel near the Verrazano Bridge and the entrance to New York Harbor. Last seen, it was headed back toward Coney Island, officials said.

While it is somewhat unusual for a humpback whale to travel this far inshore, Kim Durham, rescue program coordinator for the Riverhead Foundation, said it could have been lured in by the presence of food. The Coast Guard is urging the public to maintain a safe distance from the whale since it could interfere with any necessary rescue effort.

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