Don't hurt the whales!

Picture and text sent by Jen Kennedy at the Blue Ocean Society.

Rye, NH - Whale watchers got more than they hoped for during a whale-watching excursion aboard the Atlantic Queen on Saturday, July 14. It was a beautiful day, perfect for watching the whales that come up to Jeffreys Ledge, about 20 miles off the NH coast, to feed during the summer. The passengers had already seen several minke whales and had gotten great looks at a finback whale, one of the largest species on Earth.

As the Atlantic Queen got its last looks at a finback whale before heading back to Rye Harbor, a small sport boat sped into the area. About 60whale watch passengers of all ages watched in shock as the boat came within 100 feet of the Atlantic Queen and hit the whale as it surfaced to breathe.

As the sport boat continued on, the whale surfaced again, this time with a large gash and a series of smaller propeller cuts along its side and blood streaming from the new wound. Since harming an endangered species of whale is a violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, with fines of up to $50,000, along with imprisonment and seizure of the vessel, the captain of the Atlantic Queen and its naturalist, Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation Director Jen Kennedy, reported the incident to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Coast Guard, and they are following up with the boat operator and determining the appropriate course of action.

It is prime boating season, which also coincides with the movement of finback, humpback, minke and other whale and dolphin species into the area, which come to the Gulf of Maine to feed. Boaters should use caution when traveling through the Gulf of Maine and follow guidelines issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which include watching out for whales in the area, slowing down when near whales, never approaching a whale head-on and avoiding any behavior that would disrupt the whale or harm it.

The Blue Ocean Society has been conducting research of local whale species since 1996. One of Blue Ocean Society's major research projects is to analyze the fin whales that visit Jeffreys Ledge each season. Individual fin whales can be identified by natural markings including dorsal fin shape and chevron pattern on the whale's back, as well as any scars. Identifying individuals allows researchers to determine local populations, site fidelity (return rate of individuals), age, life span, gender, reproductive success,
and overall health and productivity of the area.

Behavioral data is then examined along with the sightings data to determine what the whales are doing and where they are doing it to determine the best methods to protect the species from current threats such as boat collisions, entanglements and marine pollution issues.

The whale that was hit on Saturday was identified as a fin whale that was first seen by the Blue Ocean Society in September 2006, so this may be a whale that frequently comes to the area, and thus the Society may be able to track it in the future and assess its condition.

Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation is a Portsmouth, NH-based non-profit organization whose mission is to promote awareness and conservation of the marine environment through education and research in New
England. In addition to research, staff members conduct educational programs aboard four local whale watch vessels, and at a touch tank in downtown Portsmouth. The Society also runs an Adopt-a-Beach Program that involves 25 local businesses, schools and clubs in cleaning beaches throughout the year.
Volunteer opportunities are available. For more information and a copy of whale viewing guidelines for the Northeast Region, visit www.blueoceansociety.org.

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