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Watch Out for Whales!

Credit: Andy Sanford. Right whales near shore, with lobster boat and ship in background.

Right whales have returned to the waters off Massachusetts in full force. We’ve seen more than 150 endangered right whales in the Cape Cod and Massachusetts Bays in recent days, with many in coastal areas and harbors. In some towns, people are seeing them from the beach!

“Right whales are here feeding on dense concentrations of their tiny plankton prey, called copepods,” says Michael Asaro, NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Program Coordinator. “While they’re here, we need everyone’s help in making sure they can feed without being harassed, hurt, or killed by curious boaters or other watercraft."

With fewer than 450 of these majestic creatures alive, it’s especially important to be vigilant when you’re on the water. 

Keep Your Distance

The best thing you can do to help these whales is give them space to feed and travel. This is the time of year that they feed and build up their energy and reserves. Approaching a whale can change its behavior, and stop it from feeding. It’s also against the law. 

Federal law requires that no one or thing (this includes drones, kayaks, personal watercraft, etc) approach a right whale within 500 yards (1500 feet), or about five football field lengths. If you’re on the water, and a right whale unexpectedly appears within that 500 yard buffer, you must immediately depart the area at a slow, safe speed.

When groups of three or more right whales are reported in an area, NOAA will also ask vessels to voluntarily reduce speeds to 10 knots or less in these areas.

There are four voluntary slow speed zones in effect now: East of Boston (ends 5/3) and south of Martha’s Vineyard (ends 5/9), east of Boston (ends 5/16) and northeast of Boston (ends 5/17).

 “With the increasingly nice weather, we will be working with local law enforcement officials to patrol coastal areas where right whales are being sighted,” says Timothy Donovan, Assistant Director of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement Northeast Division. “We will be taking extra precautions to make sure people know about the laws to keep the whales and everyone on the water safe.”

It is also illegal to chase or in any way change a whale’s natural behavior.  

Is it a right whale?

Look for:

Right whales often swim at the surface with open mouths at the surface, as they skim the water for their tiny plankton prey. This can make them hard to see, since they may be just below the surface.

If you’re not sure, please be cautious and stay at least 500 yards away.

How to Help

Whether a boat, kayak, or drone, follow the right whale approach regulations by staying 500 yards away.

If you see live, free-swimming right whales (from land or sea), report the sightings to the hotline 866-755-6622 or with the free online app called Whale Alert.

Go slow and voluntarily reduce your speed in areas where right whales have been sighted.

Keep a lookout posted. Look for spouts or strange ripples at the water’s surface that can indicate a right whale is right below the surface.

If you think a right whale is injured or entangled, or if you see a dead right whale, report it to 866-755-6622 or US Coast Guard Channel 16 immediately.

Don’t try to disentangle a right whale, or other marine animal, by yourself. This is illegal and dangerous. Call us right away so trained, permitted, professionals can respond to help save the whale’s life. Please stay with the animal as long as you can. If you can’t stay on-site until responders arrive, record as much information about the animal’s location and condition before you leave.

Report live right whale sightings, and entangled, injured, or dead marine mammals or sea turtles to the Greater Atlantic Marine Animal Reporting Hotline: 866-755-6622.

Report suspected violators of the right whale approach regulation or other marine regulations to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement: 800-853-1964.

Questions? Contact Jennifer Goebel, 978-281-9175