I Brake for Right Whales

6 November 2009 By Louisa Beckett

November 1 may be the official end of hurricane season on the U.S. East Coast, but it also marks the start of winter-long speed restrictions for boats larger than 65 feet (19.9 meters) in length operating in certain coastal waters where right whales swim.

The “Ship Strike Reduction Rule” (50CF 224.105) was signed into U.S. law last year in order to help protect the endangered right whale. While it primarily was designed to regulate commercial ship operations in North Atlantic right whale migration routes and breeding waters, the rule states that: “All vessels 65 feet (19.8 m) or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in certain locations (seasonal management areas) along the East Coast of the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard at certain times of the year to reduce the threat of ship collisions with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.”

In addition, approaching right whales by closer than 500 yards is a violation of U.S. federal and state law. Violations can result in criminal or civil penalties with fines of up to US$55,000.

The Ship Strike Reduction Rule took effect on November 1, 2009, and runs through April 30, 2010. Seasonal management areas include a large zone off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, smaller zones outside major eastern ports; the mid-Atlantic coastline from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia, and Florida’s Atlantic coastline as far south as Port Canaveral. (For more information on specific SMA locations, visit

“It does affect us here by about twenty miles out and ten miles south of us,” says Capt. David Gaskins of M/Y Areti I, which is based in St. Augustine, Florida. “It’s not too bad, really. I don’t mind anyway because if there are whales around, it’s a small price to pay for doing ten knots. The damage it could do to your vessel and me being an animal lover…I wouldn’t want to hurt any whales. Plus we only cruise at thirteen knots so we aren’t losing much.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that fewer than 400 of these 45- to 50-foot, up to 55-ton marine mammals, which are capable of living up to 100 years, are left in the world today. According to NOAA, “Approximately one-third of all known right whale mortalities are a result of vessel collisions or entanglement in fixed fishing gear.”

NOAA uses “smart buoys” to track right whales at sea by “listening” for their underwater calls. Yacht captains also can help by reporting whale sightings; just call +1 978 585 8473 or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on channel 16.

Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Right Whale Listening Network at to see a map of whale sightings recorded over the past 24 hours. Another cool feature of the site is the “Explore Whale Sounds” tab, which lets you listen to the right whale’s amazing acoustical utterings, such as the “Moan Call,” the “Scream Call” and the “Gunshot Sound.”