A note from Paul Michel, Superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, about observing wildlife from a respectful distance:
During the past few days, Humpback Whales have been concentrating close to shore near Santa Cruz, prompting considerable interest from the boating public.
Unfortunately, the intensity of waterborne spectator activity has lead to several reported collisions with whales, resulting in significant damage to at least one vessel and the overturning of small vessels. It is unclear whether whales have suffered injuries from these collisions.
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, regardless of their distance from a Humpback whale, that causes the whale to change its behavior constitutes "harassment" under federal law, subjecting the individual to potential federal fines and penalties.
The Humpback whales currently near Santa Cruz are chasing prey, and recurring disturbance by boaters can affect their energy reserves and overall health. 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 transiting whales and should not cross in front of them, pursue them from behind, or surround them. If approached by a whale, a vessel should disengage its 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).
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has regulations protecting marine mammals, including Humpback whales, from harassment or injury. Federal and state law enforcement patrols will be increased in the Santa Cruz area to address harassment issues, and the sanctuary's Team Ocean volunteers will deploy in kayaks to explain to boaters how best to view the whales safely and responsibly. Team Ocean kayaks display "National Marine Sanctuary" lettering on the hull and volunteers will wear clothing identifying them as sanctuary interpreters.
I urge the boating community to help the sanctuary protect the visiting 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.
>Photo credit: Steve Lawson