Three juvenile humpback whales have been congregating in the waters off Plymouth, where they have been feeding for at least a week.
Massachusetts Environmental Police and the Division of Marine Fisheries say swimmers, boaters or anyone using a personal watercraft should use caution when out in the water.
“These young whales are engaged in physically active feeding behavior that is very unpredictable, while feeding in a shallow area on menhaden (or “pogies”), a rich and highly abundant schooling forage fish that also attracts striped bass,” Massachusetts Environmental Police said in a statement.
This puts both whales and humans at risk, as a collision with a boat or personal watercraft can damage to the vessel, physically injure the whale or cause potential serious injury or death to the humans involved. The whales may become more unpredictable due to their young age and the presence of encroaching vessels in shallow water, police say.
It is illegal to harass marine mammals under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. This includes any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance that can injure or disrupt the feeding behavior of an animal, police say.
The National Marine Fisheries Service recommends that mariners stay at least 100 yards from whales and take a precautionary approach, given the unpredictable behavior of whales and the potential safety hazards involved.
“The enthusiasm of people wanting to see this excitement, I don’t blame them. It is really awesome,” Monica Pepe, policy manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, tells Boston 25. “But when you have everybody trying to watch these whales at the same time, it is important to make sure we’re giving them that space that they need.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers several marine life viewing guidelines for boaters:
- Limit time spent observing individuals and groups of animals to 30 minutes or less.
- Do not chase, encircle, or leapfrog animals with any watercraft. Do not trap animals between watercraft or the shore.
- Avoid approaching marine mammals when another watercraft is near. Multiple vessels are more likely to disturb marine mammals.
- Avoid excessive speed or sudden changes in speed or direction near whales, dolphins, or porpoises.
- When encountering marine mammals, slow down, operate at no-wake speed. Put your engine in neutral when whales approach to pass.
- Avoid approaching whales, dolphins, and porpoises when calves are present. Never put your watercraft between a mother and calf.
- Be wary of breaching and flipper-slapping whales that might injure people or watercraft.
- Stay clear of light green bubble patches from humpback whales. These are sub-surface bubbles before whales rise to feed at the surface.
- Never pursue or follow marine wildlife—any vessel movement should be from the recommended distance and slightly parallel to or from the rear of the animal. If you need to move around marine wildlife, do so from behind. Never approach head-on.
- Do not intentionally direct your watercraft or accelerate toward a marine mammal with the intent of creating a pressure wake allowing them to bow or wake-ride.
- Slowly leave the area if marine mammals show signs of disturbance.
Additionally, mariners are encouraged to avoid encroaching on the feeding whales and their food source. The area off Plymouth Harbor is being patrolled by the Plymouth Harbormaster, MEP, and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Law Enforcement.
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