Whale Watching Do’s & Don’ts

While you want to maintain a safe distance from a whale, there's not much you can do when one decides to visit you.
While you want to maintain a safe distance from a whale, there’s not much you can do when one decides to visit you. Photos/NEB, Tom Richardson

A recent whale-watch trip with the Capt. John Boats fleet in Plymouth, Massachusetts, served up its share of cetaceans, as well as good, basic advice for recreational boaters to follow when viewing these animals in the wild.

Private boaters have every right to view the whales on Stellwagen Bank, but they also have to follow the same rules as the large whale-watch boats. These include the federally mandated speed limit rules, posted below.

Make sure the boat's engines are in neutral when this close to a humpback or when the- animal makes a feeding dive.
Make sure the boat’s engines are in neutral when this close to a humpback or when the- animal makes a feeding dive.

On our trip we observed at least one boat violating the “No Intentional Approach” rule by motoring about the vicinity while the whale was submerged on its feeding dive. Our onboard naturalist explained that feeding whales are so focused on the task at hand that they will often resurface below or just in front of a vessel, which can prove disastrous if the boat’s propellers are turning. The proper procedure is to wait until the whale has surfaced and preparing for its next dive before moving away.

One more important note: Riding aboard our whale-watch vessel were 2 members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, who were monitoring the activity of neighboring private boats when whales were present. They also videotaped one of the speed-zone violators, and planned to report their findings to the Coast Guard.

For more information on whales and whale-watching visit the NOAA website, just CLICK HERE.

Whale-Watching Guidelines:

A humpback whale checks out the photographer.
A humpback whale checks out the photographer.

When in Sight of Whales 1-2 miles away:

  • Reduce speed to 13 knots.
  • Post a dedicated lookout to assist the vessel operator in monitoring the location of all marine mammals.
  • Avoid sudden changes in speed and direction.
  • Aircraft observe the FAA minimum altitude of 1,000 feet over water.

One mile to 1/2 mile:

  • •educe speed to 10 knots.

1/2 mile or less:

  • Reduce speed to 7 knots.
  • Maneuver vessel to avoid a head-on approach to a whale.

Close Approach Procedure (600’ or closer):

  • Parallel the course and speed of moving whales up to the designated speed limit within that distance.
  • Do not attempt a head-on approach to whale.
  • Approach and leave stationary whales at no more than idle or “no wake” speed, not to exceed 7 knots.
  • Do not intentionally drift down on whales.
  • Vessels in multi-vessel approaches should monitor radios and communicate with each other (channel 9, 13, or 16 for hailing) to coordinate viewing.
  • Take into account the presence of obstacles (vessels, structures, fishing gear, or the shoreline). All vessels in close approach must stay to the side or behind the whales so they do not box in the whales or cut off their path.

Stand-by Zone (within 300-600’):

  • Maximum of two vessels in the 300- to 600-foot Standby Zone at any one time.

Close Approach Zone (100-300’):

  • Only one vessel at a time. l When one vessel is within 300 feet of a whale, up to 2 other vessels can be in the Stand-by Zone at least 300 feet from the whale; any additional vessels should remain outside the Stand-by Zone.
  • If more than one vessel is within 600 feet, the vessel within 300 feet should limit its time to 15 minutes in close approach to whales.

No Intentional Approach (100’ or closer):

  • Do not approach within 100 feet of whales. If whales approach within 100 feet of your vessel, put engines in neutral and do not re-engage propulsion until whales are observed clear of harm’s way from your vessel.

Departure Procedures:

  • All vessels should leave the whales following the same speed and distance procedures described above.
  • All vessels should begin their return to port and cease whale watching 15 minutes before sunset.