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The Scientist: More Info

Rules for Whale Watching

Photo of whales

Scientists, like the ones at Allied Whale featured in this QUEST, have special permits to approach whales. They are given a license for certain types of scientific work with specific species. No other boat should approach whales as seen in this television program.

All Marine Mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it illegal to "harass" marine mammals -- which includes changing their behavior in any way -- and certainly includes injuring or killing them. In spite of the fact that whale watch boats are the second leading cause of ship strikes with whales (after US Navy boats), no rules have been passed to limit whale watching activity (with the exception of the endangered Right Whale). Two sets of whale watching guidelines have been created by NOAA, the U.S. government's ocean regulatory agency, but these have never been enacted.

Right Whales

No boat is allowed to approach closer than 500 meters to a Right Whale because Right Whales are covered by the Endangered Species Act. (They are in extreme danger of extinction, with probably less than 300 left in the world). The North Atlantic Right Whale population is especially threatened to ship strike. Dr. Sean Todd from Allied Whale has done acoustic work with whales that leads him to believe that right whales may not hear boats approaching as well as other whales.

Other Whales

NOAA does offer voluntary whale watching guidelines. These involve reducing speed even at 2 miles away...reducing speed to 7 knots within 600 feet...and absolutely no approach within 100 feet of a whale. Boats should never approach a whale head on, come between whales in a pod, nor intentionally drift down on a whale. Only one vessel at a time should be within 300 ft of a whale.

For human as well as whale safety, guidelines for individuals also state: NOAA Fisheries does not support, condone, approve, or authorize activities that involve closely approaching, interacting, or attempting to interact with whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, or sea lions in the wild. This includes attempting to swim with, pet, touch, or elicit a reaction from the animals.

For more information on the US government's policies on whales, including downloadable viewing guidelines for the Northeast and links to other sites, visit NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources website:

For more information on organizations working to strengthen whale watching guidelines, see these sites:

World Wildlife Fund - (includes the International Whaling Commission's whale observation principles) and information on their own whale protection priorities:

Green Earth Journal;

Remember, it is illegal to harass or harm any marine mammal which includes whales. If you see a collision or anyone harassing marine mammals, you can report it to the NOAA Enforcement Office Hotline: 800-853-1964.

National Science Foundation Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Maine Forest Products Council Irving Woodlands, LLC Desiree Carlson, M.D. More Connected. More Maine.

Major funding is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Additional funding is provided by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine Forest Products Council, Irving Woodlands LLC., Desiree Carlson, M.D., and gifts to More Connected. More Maine, The Campaign for Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Programming.

A list of other funders includes:
The Davis Family Foundation, Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, and Lincoln Ladd.

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