Skip to main content
Unsupported Browser Detected

Internet Explorer lacks support for the features of this website. For the best experience, please use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge.

Go Slow—Whales Below

December 22, 2021

You can help save endangered North Atlantic right whales by slowing down to 10 knots or less in waters where they are likely present.

North Atlantic right whale mother and calf North Atlantic right whale mother and calf. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Vessel Strikes and North Atlantic Right Whales

Image
A North Atlantic right whale with propeller scars
A North Atlantic right whale with propeller scars. Credit: NOAA

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.

Image
Right whales in water
Unlike most other whales and dolphins, right whales do not have a dorsal fin. They often rest at the surface of the water and can be difficult to see from boats because their backs are broad and flat. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (NOAA Permit # 775-1875).

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 seasontypically between mid-November and mid-Aprilis 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

Image
Right whale and calf inside the shipping lane
Right whale Catalog #3115 ‘Harmony’ and calf rest at the surface inside the busy recommended shipping lane for the Port of Jacksonville on February 4, 2020. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (NOAA permit 20556-01).

Learn more about U.S. vessel speed regulations and programs for right whales

Know Before You Go

whale-alert-phone-sm.jpg

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:

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.

Image
Right whale #3115 ‘Harmony’ and calf nursing
Right whale Catalog #3115 ‘Harmony’ and calf nursing approx. 6 nautical miles off Ponte Vedra Beach, FL on January 27, 2020. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (NOAA permit 20556-01).

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. 

Learn more about Snow Cone’s Journey

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.

Learn more about the potential impacts from increased vessel traffic

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.

Learn more about the importance of giving right whales space

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.

Learn more about the Slow Zones campaign and how to sign up for Slow Zone alerts

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. 

Learn more about the loss of this calf and NOAA Fisheries’ and partners’ response

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.

Learn more about how vessels 65 feet and greater must travel slower than 10 knots

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.

Learn more about how right whales are threatened by vessel strikes throughout their range

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.

Learn more about NOAA Fisheries’ and partners’ response to the calf’s injuries

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.  

Learn how NOAA Fisheries is addressing this urgent conservation challenge

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.