Vessel Strikes and North Atlantic Right Whales
Collisions with vessels of all sizes—from recreational boats to large ocean-going ships—are one of the primary causes of elevated North Atlantic right whale injuries and deaths today. Vessel strikes, sometimes referred to as ship strikes, can cause broken bones and massive internal injuries or severe cuts from propellers.
Right whales are vulnerable to these collisions because their habitat and migration routes are close to major ports along the Atlantic coastline and often overlap with shipping lanes and coastal waters used for boating and fishing. And they tend to swim slowly at, or just below, the water’s surface. Despite their enormous size, right whales can be surprisingly difficult to spot from a vessel, especially in poor weather or low light conditions, in part because they are dark in color and lack a dorsal fin.
Each fall, many of these whales migrate more than 1,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds off New England and Canada to their calving grounds in the shallow, coastal waters of the southeastern United States.
Calving season—typically between mid-November and mid-April—is an especially vulnerable period for right whales. Mom and calf pairs spend the majority of their time at, or near, the water's surface. This makes it extremely important for everyone to give these whales plenty of space, and for mariners and boaters to slow down in areas where right whales are likely to be, or avoid these areas altogether.
All Boaters Can Help Reduce Vessel Strikes
Vessel strikes are dangerous for whales and mariners. Collisions have resulted in injuries to passengers and substantial damage to boats. All mariners and boaters from Maine to Florida can help save the endangered North Atlantic right whale by slowing down to 10 knots or less at times and in areas where right whales are likely present.
Go Slow—Whales Below
Slower speeds are known to reduce the severity of impacts to whales when strikes occur and may provide boat and vessel operators an opportunity to avoid a collision. In areas where right whales have been recently seen or heard, we strongly urge all mariners and boaters to slow down to 10 knots or less, or avoid these areas altogether to prevent collisions.
In 2008, NOAA established a mandatory vessel speed rule to mitigate the impact of vessel strikes on North Atlantic right whales. The rule requires that most vessels longer than 65 feet slow their speed in seasonal management areas along the East Coast at certain times of year. But because vessels of all sizes can strike a whale, NOAA Fisheries also encourages vessels less than 65 feet long to slow to 10 knots or less in right whale speed reduction zones.
Know Before You Go
We want to help all vessel operators learn where right whales are located so they can slow down and reduce the risk of collision. Before you head out on the water, take the following actions to help prevent collisions with right whales:
Check current right whale speed reduction zones and recent whale detections near your location
Download the free Whale Alert app to your smartphone or tablet to see whale "safety zones" in a user-friendly format
Sign up for right whale Slow Zone email or text notifications (Maine to Virginia)
Be On the Lookout and Give Them Space
It is difficult to spot right whales, in part because they are dark in color and lack a dorsal fin. In addition to slowing down, post a lookout, and watch for black objects, white water, and splashes. Avoid boating in the dark or in rough seas, when visibility is poor.
Federal law requires vessels, paddle boarders, and aircraft (including drones) to stay at least 500 yards (five football fields) away from right whales. These restrictions are in place to prevent accidental collisions between right whales and boats as well as to protect the whales from disturbance. Disturbance from watercraft or aircraft could affect behaviors critical to the health and survival of the species, especially mother-calf pairs.
Right Whale and Vessel Strikes Feature Stories
A Mother Right Whale’s Perilous Journey
Snow Cone, one of the few breeding female North Atlantic right whales remaining, was spotted with a new calf in December 2021. She has also been entangled in fishing rope for months. Her first calf was found dead off the coast of New Jersey in June 2020—he had been struck twice by vessels.
Right Whale Use of Southern New England Wind Energy Areas Increasing
Southern New England habitat is important to the North Atlantic right whale. With offshore wind energy development planned in the region, working with stakeholders to minimize potential impacts on right whales and other protected species is crucial.
Watching for Migrating Right Whales is More Important Than Ever
With an unprecedented number of right whale deaths over the last three years, NOAA and partners ask the public to give space to this endangered species as they make their way south.
Help Endangered Right Whales: Slow Down in Slow Zones
All boaters can help save right whales by slowing down in Right Whale Slow Zones in waters from Maine through Virginia.
Dead North Atlantic Right Whale Sighted Off New Jersey
On June 25, 2020, we received a report of a North Atlantic right whale carcass off the coast of New Jersey. The male right whale calf had evidence of at least two separate vessel collisions.
Make Way for Right Whales
NOAA Fisheries manages vessel speed restrictions in Seasonal Management Areas along the U.S. east coast at certain times of year to protect right whales from potentially deadly vessel strikes.
Right Whales and the Dangers of Vessel Strikes and Entanglement
North Atlantic right whales prefer coastal waters making them susceptible to injury or death from vessel strikes. To reduce interactions between vessels and right whales, NOAA establishes seasonal and dynamic management areas along the East Coast.
North Atlantic Right Whale Calf Injured by Vessel Strike
On January 8, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spotted the fourth right whale calf of the 2020 calving season off Georgia, but the young whale was already injured.
Protecting Right Whales from Vessel Strikes Videos
Boat Safely Around Whales
Watch the video below for quick tips for recreational boaters and fishermen on how to safely share the water with federally protected whales.
The Right Stuff: Regulations for Right Whales
Watch our video to learn more about regulations in place for right whales.
Slow Zones for Right Whales
Watch the video below to learn how NOAA’s Right Whale Slow Zones program aims to help reduce the risk of vessel strikes by notifying boaters of areas where right whales are present.
Right Whales in Crisis
North Atlantic right whales are one of the world’s most endangered whale species; the latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 remaining. Sadly, they are dying faster than they can reproduce, largely due to human causes. Since 2017, North Atlantic right whales have been suffering an Unusual Mortality Event, with at least 50 individuals documented including 34 dead and 16 seriously injured whales. This is more than 10 percent of the current North Atlantic right whale population.
Species in the Spotlight Initiative
North Atlantic right whales are a NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight, a concerted agency-wide effort to spotlight and save marine species that are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. The Species in the Spotlight 2021-2025 priority action plan details the focused efforts needed to reduce threats to right whales and stabilize the population decline.