Whalewatching Guidelines

Northeast Region including Stellwagen Bank

All whales, dolphins and porpoises in the northeast region are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and most large whales in the area are further protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under these Acts, it is illegal to "harass, hunt, capture or kill" any marine mammal. Prohibited conduct includes any "negligent or intentional act which results in the disturbing or molesting of marine mammals."

The following operational procedures are intended to avoid harassment and possible injury to large whales, particularly finbacks, humpbacks and minke whales, commonly seen by vessels engaged in whale watching. Following the guidelines can help protect both you and the whale you wish to watch and keep you from accidentally violating federal law.


When in Sight of Whales Two miles to one mile away

  • Reduce speed to 13 knots.

  • Post a dedicated lookout to assist the vessel operator in monitoring the location of all marine mammals.

  • Avoid sudden changes in speed and direction.

  • Aircraft observe the FAA minimum altitude of 1,000 feet over water.

One mile to one-half mile away

  • Reduce speed to 10 knots.

One half mile or less

  • Reduce speed to 7 knots.

  • Maneuver vessel to avoid a head-on approach to a whale.

Close Approach Procedure (600 feet or closer)

  • Parallel the course and speed of moving whales up to the designated speed limit within that distance.

  • Do not attempt a head-on approach to whale.

  • Approach and leave stationary whales at no more than idle or "no wake" speed, not to exceed 7 knots.

  • Do not intentionally drift down on whales.

  • Vessels in multi-vessel approaches should monitor radios and communicate with each other (channel 9, 13, or 16 for hailing) to coordinate viewing.

  • Take into account the presence of obstacles (vessels, structures, fishing gear, or the shoreline). All vessels in close approach must stay to the side or behind the whales so they do not box in the whales or cut off their path.

Stand-by Zone (within 300 to 600 feet)

  • Maximum of two vessels in the 300- to 600-foot Standby Zone at any one time.

Close Approach Zone (100 to 300 feet)

  • Only one vessel at a time. l When one vessel is within 300 feet of a whale, up to 2 other vessels can be in the Stand-by Zone at least 300 feet from the whale; any additional vessels should remain outside the Stand-by Zone.

  • If more than one vessel is within 600 feet, the vessel within 300 feet should limit its time to 15 minutes in close approach to whales.

No Intentional Approach (100 feet away or closer)

  • Do not approach within 100 feet of whales. If whales approach within 100 feet of your vessel, put engines in neutral and do not rengage propulsion until whales are observed clear of harm's way from your vessel.

Departure Procedures

  • All vessels should leave the whales following the same speed and distance procedures described above.

  • All vessels should begin their return to port and cease whale watching 15 minutes before sunset.

Right Whale Regulations

The right whale is protected by separate State and Federal regulations that prohibit approach within 500 yards of this species. Any vessel finding itself within the 500 yard buffer zone created by a surfacing right whale must depart immediately at a safe slow speed. The only vessels allowed to remain within 500 yards of a right whale are vessels with appropriate research permits, commercial fishing vessels in the act of hauling back or towing gear, or any vessel given prior approval by NMFS to investigate a potential entanglement.


A violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act may result in fines or civil penalties of up to $10,000 or criminal penalties of up to $20,000 plus IMPRISONMENT and/or SEIZURE OF VESSEL and other personal property.

Helpful HOTLINE Numbers and Whale Watching Information

For more information on the whalewatching guidelines or laws pertaining to marine mammals in the northeast region, visit:

http://www.nero.noaa.govExternal Link or www.whalesense.orgExternal Link

To report a stranded, injured, entangled or dead marine mammal or sea turtle, call:

866-755-NOAA (2266) or contact the U.S. Coast Guard via VH16

--If possible, please stand by an entangled whale until a response vessel arrives. If you must depart, please document your sighting with photos or videos and report the time, location, and the whale's direction of travel when you left the scene.

To report presumed marine law violations, call NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement:




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