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Humpback Whale Migration Update: March 17, 1999

Today's Report Includes:

While We Wait for the Whales...
Greetings from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Although whale sightings are quiet up here, while we wait for the whales to arrive in northern waters, the people involved in whalewatching and whale protection have been very busy.

Because of a series of incidents -- three whale strikes in the last two years by whale watching vessels -- there has been a call for stronger guidelines for these types of boats. A group of representatives from industry, government, research, and conservation organizations has been looking at the present whalewatching guidelines for the Gulf of Maine and how they might be changed to better protect the whales.

Too Close for Comfort?
Discussion of Challenge Question #5
Challenge Question #5 asked about whalewatching speed limits, approach distances and time limits. Mrs. Botsko's 5th grade Science students of Freedom Intermediate School in Franklin, Tennessee responded with the following answer:

"We feel the speed limits would be limited to 5 knots per hour. The safe distance for whale watching is 270 feet from any group of whales and you are limited to no more than 30 minutes to watch any particular group." (

Nice work! Down in Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic, a group of industry, government and non-governmental organizations, developed a plan (in 1994) which called for specific regulations for whalewatching:

  • In the area with the greatest concentration of whales the speed limit was set at 5 knots.
  • Whalewatching required a permit (private boaters could not go out purposely to watch whales, they could only cross the Bay on their way to a destination).
  • When a whale was spotted, only one large (greater than 30 feet) and two small (between 18-30 feet) could approach only as close as 270 feet (80 meters) of a group including a mother-calf pair or to within 165 feet (50 meters) of a group of other whales.
  • When watching, boats are to put their engines in neutral and there is a 30-minute time limit for watching a group of whales. Boats awaiting their turns must stay at least 1,500 feet (500 meters) away from the whales.

In the Gulf of Maine whalewatching vessels have been following a set of guidelines that were developed several years ago but have been under scrutiny lately. Here, the guidelines recommend that:

  • A single boat can approach to 100 feet of a humpback whale, but all others must stand back at least 300 feet until it is their turn.
  • Boats should approach stationary whales with no more than idle or "no wake" speed, and should not attempt a head-on approach to moving or resting whales.
  • Boats should move parallel to the course of the moving whale;
  • Vessels should limit their time to 15 minutes in close approach to whales.
  • (Strict regulations for right whales prohibit approaches closer than 500 yards.)

Why have these regulations and guidelines? The main reason is to prevent harassment of the whales. If the whales were to become disturbed by too many competing boats approaching too closely, they might not get enough food to eat (up north) or might not be able to mate successfully (down south). Mothers and calves might get separated with drastic consequences. Boats moving too quickly in areas of high whale concentrations might inadvertently hit whales that are surfacing to breathe. Noisy, close approaches might also wake up resting whales or interfere with communication between whales.

Watching in Hawaiian Waters
Discussion of Challenge Question #6

Challenge Question #6 was about whalewatching in Hawaii--half a world away from Stellwagen Bank. I asked about the shoreside whale spotting stations and why they were placed on high points.

The reason is: to give greater visibility.

  • From one foot in height, the distance to the horizon at sea is 1.15 nautical miles.
  • From 20 feet high, the distance to the horizon is 5.14 nautical miles.

From the greater heights, observers can see farther, and therefore may be able to see greater numbers of whales offshore (especially important since most whales are not found very close to shore). I also asked about why the most whales were found along the northwest side of the Big Island and off the east and southeast sides of Oahu. These tend to be shallower areas along the island chain (and sheltered between the islands). For mothers and calves, as well as for mating whales, these more quiet waters may be the preferred wintering grounds.

Here's this week's Challenge Question. I talked about nautical miles in my answer to Challenge Question #6.

Challenge Question #7
"What is the difference between a mile and a nautical mile? And, for those of you with a love of nautical terminology, what is a knot?"

That's all for this report. This is Anne Smrcina, education coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, signing off.

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question:

1. Address an E-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #7
3. In the body of your message, answer the question above.

The Next Humpback Whale Migration Update will Be Posted on March 31, 1999.

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