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Whale Watching

image of humpback whale breaching by Wade Tregaskis

Whale Watching

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a world-renowned travel destination for abundant wildlife viewing, including many species of large whales and dolphins.

There are numerous opportunities to view whales from a safe distance while reducing our impacts. Wildlife viewers should not disturb, harass, or cause animals to change their natural behavior. Whales and other marine mammals are protected by federal law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

To help protect these charismatic animals, MBNMS works with a number of partners to promote safe whale watching and safe fishing practices.

Whale Watching Guidelines

Recreational boaters and commercial charters, and the Sanctuary Advisory Council work together with MBNMS to promote safe whale watching practices in the sanctuary.

Below is a summary of the boat operator guidelines to follow:

graphic of the acceptable 100 yards from a marine mammel when stationary graphic of the acceptable 100 yards from a marine mammel when moving
  • Keep your vessel distance and remain at least 100 yards (300 feet) from whales.
  • Avoid flying drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), close to animals. The noise and close proximity of drones (especially multiple drones at one time) can harass the animals and cause stress.
  • Stay alert and look ahead for signs of whales that can surface suddenly ahead of your path.
  • Put your vessel in neutral if a nearby whale is feeding or resting as whales are sensitive to engine noise.
  • Operate at no-wake speed or match the speed of the slowest whale.
  • Be wary of breaching and flipper-slapping whales that might injure passengers or your vessel.
  • Minimize sudden, unnecessary maneuvers and avoid excessive or sudden changes in your speed or direction near whales.
  • Never drive through groups of whales.
  • image of the PDF version of the MBNMS Whale Watching Guidelines
    Click here for a full set of guidelines (637K PDF)
  • Communicate with other boat operators nearby to minimize whale disturbance.
  • Limit your observing time to 30 minutes or less.
  • Be aware that cumulative impacts may also occur. Your vessel may not be the only one to have recently approached the same whales.
  • Slowly steer your vessel away when leaving, as there may be other unsen whales nearby.


Whale Ship Strikes

Collisions between whales and vessels can occur, often with serious risks to boaters as well as to whales. MBNMS works with other California national marine sanctuaries, NOAA Fisheries, and non profit organizations to address data needs on whale distribution and abundance and better understand the needs of the shipping industry in terms of vessel speeds and transit routes. Voluntary vessel speed reduction programs are in place for vessels navigating into and out of ports of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach. The goal of these seasonal voluntary speed reduction zones is to reduce the risk of fatal ship strikes to endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales within and near Monterey Bay, Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries. Reducing vessel speed also decreases fuel consumption and engine emissions near port areas, which can improve the health of nearby communities.

Whale Entanglements

Whales can become entangled in the lines and buoys of fishing gear, primarily trap and pot gear. Entanglement may cause physical trauma, infections, and may lead to ship strikes since the whale is less mobile. NOAA and West Coast Sanctuaries are working with the State of California’s Dungeness Fishing Gear Working Group which includes the fishing industry and non-profit organizations to address the issue and reduce whale entanglements through whale data collection (including promotion of Ocean Alert app, see below) and testing of innovative gear solutions. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation has implemented a Gear Innovations Program through funding from the Ocean Protection Council.


To Help An Entangled Whale

graphic of phone to report an entaglement Call – the Entanglement Reporting Hotline: 1 877-SOS-WHAL or 1-877-767-9425 or hail the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF radio Ch.16.
graphic of binoculars to monitor from a distance Monitor – from at least a 100 yard distance, note the time of sighting, direction of whale travel, and location coordinates. Document the entanglement with photos if possible and report through Ocean Alert app (see below)
graphic of upheld hand to stay away and do not touch Stay in your boat – never get into the water, touch, or attempt to free a whale. Removing lines or buoys diminishes the chances of freeing the whale of all entangled gear. Wait for trained, authorized personnel to respond.


Report Entangled Whales

Entanglement Reporting Hotline:
1-877-SOS-WHAL or 1-877-767-9425 U.S. Coast Guard: VHF Ch.16
Responses to marine mammals in distress are coordinated and authorized by NOAA Fisheries.
Report derelict or lost fishing gear:
Derelict Gear Hotline: 1-855-542-3935


Report Sightings through the free Ocean Alert appgraphic of the Ocean Alert logo

Support ocean conservation through the use of Ocean Alert, a mobile data collection app. While on the water, report your sightings of large whales and sea turtles, in real time to help inform natural resource managers about their locations and relative abundance. Download the app for free for Android at the the Google Play Store or for Apple devices at the Mac App Store.

For natural history information about whale, dolphin and porpoise species in the sanctuary, visit this page.

Follow NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries wildlife viewing guidelines and Take the Wildlife Pledge!

Reviewed: April 11, 2024
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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