Humpback in New York

A 20-foot humpback whale has been causing quite a stir in metro-area waters.

Spotted off Rockaway Beach on Wednesday, the whale headed into New York Harbor early yesterday, only to head back out again, and was last seen yesterday at about 2:30 p.m., the Coast Guard said.

The last known sighting of the whale was at 2:24 p.m. at the No. 5 and 6 buoys in Ambrose Channel south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by a boat crew from Coast Guard Station New York and representatives from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, authorities said.

The Coast Guard maintained a “safety zone” around the whale in an effort to protect it from boaters and ships – and protect boaters from it – but suspended the effort at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has a team responding to the scene to assess the condition of the whale. The foundation is authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine life sightings.

In a 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.”

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.