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Experts address whale safety after close encounters off Plymouth

"Hitting a car with a deer is a bad idea. Think about a fiberglass boat with a whale.”

Leo Enggasser
Justin Enggasser and his son Leo witnessed a whale hit a boat in Plymouth Harbor. Leo Enggasser

Officials gathered Friday morning to discuss marine safety amid a spate of close calls between whales and boaters off the coast of Plymouth.

Experts from NOAA, Massachusetts Environmental Police, and local marine conservation groups warned boaters that safety — of both whales and humans — is at risk. 

“The interactions that we’ve seen lately jeopardize the safety of everyone involved,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Even hitting a car with a deer is a bad idea. Think about a fiberglass boat with a whale.”

whales

Asmutis-Silvia advised boaters to keep a “buffer zone” of 100 feet or more from the animals — even while whale-watching. This was echoed by other environmentalists, including Lt. Col. Patrick Moran of the Massachusetts Environmental Police, or MEP.

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“While seeing these humpback whales can be an incredible opportunity, everybody should do so in a safe environment, and that means leaving a safe distance between your boat and that whale,” Moran said, noting that MEP will “have a presence” at Plymouth harbor to enforce safety regulations.

NOAA experts addressed the three juvenile humpback whales that have been spotted the most frequently in the area. Bob Glenn, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, noted that the whales’ age “increases the unpredictability of their behavior.”

“[The whales] are young animals that are inexperienced like any juveniles, including human adolescents,” added Asmutis-Silvia. “They’re not gonna be paying attention to the boats or the people that are out there. They’re very focused on food.” 

The food in question is a large school of menhaden, or pogies, that is popping up in Plymouth harbor. While Glenn said these fish are also quite unpredictable, they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon — and that means more whale sightings in shallower waters.

“We’re fairly certain that with increasing abundance of menhaden in our waters and increased abundance of humpback whales, we can anticipate that these types of events may continue to occur into the future with increased frequency,” he said.

The conference follows a recent social media frenzy of whale sightings in the area, including a video of a whale breaching on top of a boat that made headlines last week. Troy Audyatis, an investigator for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, told boaters not to take any risks in efforts to get the next viral video.

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“A lot of people get excited when they see the whales, they want to get a post on Instagram or whatever type of social media, which is all well and good, but we need to do that safely,” Audyatis said.

Asmutis-Silvia said that she hopes the recent internet buzz will help Massachusetts marine conservation efforts overall.

“We love the interest in these whales,” she said. “We’re hopeful that the enthusiasm will encourage actions to further conserve and protect these animals for future generations.”

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