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A Statement from the MBNMS Superintendent

picture of a humpback whale breaching in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Whales in Monterey Bay National Narine Sanctuary need your help! Humpbacks and other marine wildlife are once again feeding close to shore. Enjoy them from a distance. Please respect these incredible animals and their natural behaviors. Give them plenty of room to feed and move through the area. The last thing anyone wants is harassment of a whale, or worse, an overturned boat and someone injured from getting too close.

During the past few days, sanctuary staff have received many reports of vessels (even paddle boards and kayaks) encroaching on humpback whales and wildlife within Monterey Bay. Whales are following an influx of prey into the bay, and when this prey, predominantly anchovies, come inshore, so do the whales. Other marine mammals and seabirds are also pursuing these prey fish.

Approaching too close to humpback whales can be dangerous for humans and whales alike. The whales are focused on feeding, which can often be a violent, high-energy activity. Humpbacks often herd schools of fish to the surface of the water and lunge through the schools with their mouths open, catching the fish in their baleen as the whales rise out of the water.

Boaters should give such whales a wide berth. Just one adult humpback whale can weigh as much as 105,000 pounds (52 tons). Being struck by one of these whales while sitting on the surface of the water would be tantamount to being struck by a moving freight train. Fiberglass, wood, or even metal hulls are not designed for such impact. They would shatter or buckle and subject the occupants to the high risk of blunt force trauma and drowning. Considering the fact that humpbacks often feed in pods of three or more whales, people who are overly curious or persistent could find themselves trapped within a group of whales, as they lunge out of the water, leaving no route of escape.

Aside from the very real risks to human health and safety, drawing too close to whales and wildlife can have harmful effects on the animals themselves and can disrupt important feeding behavior. Whales need to consume a lot of food to maintain their health and sometimes they have to go long periods without food. So when prey is available, they must eat as much as they possibly can. Interfering with this feeding could put the whales at risk of not getting enough food to sustain themselves. Remember also that propellers, bowsprits, line, and other boating gear can damage or entangle whales. Impacts with recreational or commercial boats can cause internal bleeding and damage for whales.

It is important that the public not crowd or surround these animals. As a rule of thumb, boaters should stay 100 yards to the side of feeding or transiting whales and should not cross in front of them, pursue them from behind, or surround them. Never position a vessel over or near feeding whales. If approached by a whale, a vessel's captain should disengage the drive system and drift until the whale moves away. Marine Wildlife Viewing Guidelines for observing marine mammals are available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Humpback whales are protected from disturbance or injury by three federal laws - the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. Any action by an individual that causes the whale to change its behavior, regardless of the person's intent or distance from the whale, constitutes "harassment" under federal law, subjecting the individual to potential federal fines and penalties.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has regulations protecting marine mammals and seabirds, including humpback whales, from harassment or injury. Federal and state law enforcement officials will investigate harassment and disturbance incidents. Fines can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars and can be imposed, regardless of the person's intent.

I urge the boating and recreational communities to help the sanctuary protect the whales by giving them the space they need to feed and by reporting whale harassment or injury to the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

Dawn Hayes
Deputy Superintendent
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
URL: http://montereybay.noaa.gov/new/2014/140731statement_whale.html    Reviewed: August 01, 2014
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