Humpback whale feeding using bubble cloud. Image collected under MMPA Research permit number 775-1875. Photo Credit: NOAA/NEFSC/Christin Khan
Over the last two weeks, the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic regional fisheries office has received multiple reports of interactions between boaters and whales in New England waters. During the summer, whales are feeding on small schooling fish and zooplankton called copepods, and have been spotted in coastal areas.
“Increased whale activity in areas off Northern New England are coinciding with summer boat traffic. We want to remind boaters of ways to prevent accidental interactions with whales, which can be fatal to the whales and cause damage to boats,” says Jeff Ray, Deputy Special Agent in Charge, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.
NOAA Fisheries asks boaters to keep a close eye out for feeding and traveling whales, and to remember to follow safe viewing guidelines, which include staying 100 feet away from whales such as humpback, fin, sei, and minke whales, and 500 feet away from the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, for your safety and theirs.
New England waters are known as the summer feeding grounds for humpback whales. The bubble clouds that humpback whales use to corral their prey, and then lunge through the center to swallow the small fish, is something that boaters should watch out for and avoid. Fishermen or boaters in these bubble patches run the risk of colliding with a massive whale as it rapidly approaches the surface.
Right whales are more difficult to see as they glide across the surface of the water when feeding on copepods. Fast moving vessels run the risk of colliding with right whales since they are hard to see. Boaters should look out for the V-shaped blow that can distinguish right whales from other species. If you see a whale blow, please slow down and maintain a safe distance from the whale.
“In addition to keeping a sharp lookout, we also ask that should the whales approach your boat, you put your boat in neutral until they have passed safely,” says NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Response Coordinator Mendy Garron. “Also, please report any sightings. Locating the whales will help us keep them safe.”
When a whale collides with a vessel, it can be gravely injured and die from its injuries. Collisions with whales have also thrown boaters from vessels or cause significant damage to boats.
In addition to the risk of a collision, the close proximity of a boat may cause a whale to stop feeding. All whales in U.S. waters are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it illegal for people to harm, injure, kill, chase, or harass whales or any other marine mammal. Harassment includes any activity that results in changes to the whales’ natural behaviors, such as feeding. Penalties for Marine Mammal Protection Act violations are fines of up to $20,000 and up to one year in prison. Get more information on safe boating near whales.