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The Common “Sense” Way to View Majestic Whales

February 17, 2017

NOAA Fisheries hopes you’ve enjoyed diving into all the whale science and stories we’ve featured this week. From coast to coast, you may be asking how you can get out and see whales for yourself.

Captain John’s boat with humpback. Credit: WDC

Going out with whale watching tours that follow responsible guidelines is a great way to see whales in a manner that is safe and respectful for wildlife and humans, while supporting local businesses. The Whale SENSE program provides recognition for companies who follow these guidelines.

What does Whale SENSE mean?

Each whale watching company that participates in the Whale SENSE program—supported and developed by NOAA Fisheries and its long-time partner Whale and Dolphin Conservation—agrees to follow basic guidelines that help minimize disturbance to whales, alert appropriate authorities to whales in distress, and provide a safe viewing experience.

The “SENSE”-ible guidelines are:

  • Stick to the regional whale watching guidelines
  • Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers to have SENSE while watching whales
  • Notify appropriate responders of any whales in distress
  • Set an example for other boaters
  • Encourage ocean stewardship

Whale SENSE acknowledges companies that are committed to responsible practices, and provides training as well as marketing materials and recognition on the Whale SENSE website so tourists can make informed decisions when selecting a tour operator.

“Our goal is an educated and respectful approach to whale watching,” said Aleria Jensen, Deputy for Protected Resources at NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office, who helped to establish the program in Alaska. “We’re proud of these companies for taking a leadership role and committing to stewardship on the water.”

(c) Gastineau Guiding

Where can you find Whale SENSE endorsed companies?

There are 23 recognized Whale SENSE tours operating along the Atlantic coast and in Juneau, Alaska. The Whale SENSE program started in 2009 with several tour operators in New England. After regional success and expansion along the Atlantic seaboard, the Atlantic program became a model for Alaska Whale SENSE, based in Juneau.

“Working directly with participating companies has allowed us to maintain a great relationship with them” said Monica Pepe of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “We take their suggestions and feedback seriously, and as a result the program is constantly evolving to be as successful as possible.”

Captain John’s boat with Pinch lobtailing. Credit: WDC

Each region has unique whale watching challenges that the Whale SENSE community of operators has helped address. Along the Atlantic coast, Whale SENSE vessels have acted as “first responders” able to spot and report entangled whales, especially endangered North Atlantic right whales. Having Whale SENSE participants stay with entangled whales until trained responders arrive to attempt disentanglement efforts is key to a successful long-term conservation strategy.

Frank DeSantis—owner and captain of American Princess Cruises in Queens, New York, and Whale SENSE participant since 2013—describes his first encounter with this rare whale. “This was our first-ever sighting of a right whale on one of our trips, and while we were devastated to learn that it was entangled, we felt fortunate to be able to document its condition and report it to the authorities. Our Whale SENSE training provided us with the tools to know what we could do to help in that situation.”

In Alaska, Juneau is a key foraging location for humpback whales, and a world-class whale watching destination. Whale SENSE Alaska was introduced in 2015 to augment NOAA’s 2001 regulations about approaching humpback whales, providing additional operational guidelines and training for viewing wildlife, and recognizing companies for participating in the program. Whale SENSE was formed in Alaska with the goal of minimizing disruption to humpbacks during critical foraging times, while still ensuring that whale watching remains a viable and sustainable enterprise.

Allen Marine Beach clean up

So whether you want to see breaching whales off Cape Cod or a killer whale in Alaska (or humpbacks on either coast), Whale SENSE tours provide safe and educational opportunities to view the whales we’ve come to know during  #WhaleWeek2017!

More Information

Learn more about Whale SENSE and recognized operators.

You can see lots of species on Whale SENSE tours.

Get more information about responsible marine life viewing.

Learn about Alaska’s Whale SENSE program from this 2015 Tweetchat!

Whale SENSE Atlantic Has a Banner Year in 2016

Passengers on board a Whale SENSE accredited vessel getting a close look at a humpback whale.

In 2016, the responsible whale watching program Whale SENSE Atlantic hit two records: the highest number of participants (16) and the most large whale entanglements documented by participants (13). The most recent entanglement was reported by American Princess Cruises out of New York City on December 4, and involved a critically endangered right whale.

“This was our first ever sighting of a right whale on one of our trips,” says Frank DeSantis, owner and captain with American Princess Cruises, “and while we were devastated to learn that it was entangled, we felt fortunate to be able to document its condition and report it in to the authorities.”

Whale SENSE Atlantic is a voluntary program for responsible whale watching offered to commercial whale watch companies from Maine through Virginia. The program, founded by the NOAA Fisheries and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) in 2009, plays a key role in the conservation and welfare of large whales in the North Atlantic.

“The role of our Whale SENSE partners is more important than ever, as the number of whale entanglements they reported nearly doubled from 7 cases in 2015 to 13 in 2016,” says Dave Gouveia, protected species monitoring coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region. “In several of the reported entanglements, the whale watch vessels were able to stay with the entangled whales until disentanglement teams were deployed, which is essential to the teams being able to find the whale.”

entangled humpback whale
On August 14, the Dolphin Fleet reported a whale entanglement, and several other companies, including Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises, Capt. John and Sea Salt Charters, also stood by “Storm” and her calf until the disentanglement team arrived. 

This year Whale SENSE welcomed four new companies: Boston Harbor Cruises, New England Aquarium Whale Watch, Rudee Tours, and Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Whale SENSE participants not only go above and beyond the standard of responsible viewing practices, but they also communicate conservation messages to more than 100,000 passengers each year.

“We have the opportunity to reach thousands of people each year, to not only show them members of endangered whale populations, but to make sure they understand that everyone plays a role in their conservation,” says Zack Klyver with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company, program participants since 2012. “Everyone can recycle to reduce the plastic debris in the ocean, everyone can limit their energy use by shutting down electronics, and consumers can make informed and responsible decisions about their seafood purchases.”

Whale SENSE participants, along with NOAA Fisheries and WDC, received an Environmental Merit Award from the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the program in May.

“We are thrilled and humbled that the EPA acknowledged the great work of our participants, and plan to continue enhancing the program moving forward so we can reach even more whale watch passengers with these conservation messages,” says Monica Pepe of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

For most whale watching operators, it was a banner year for whale sightings. Humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine were easy to find, and from June through October passengers were often able to witness the whales, sometimes in large groups, feeding on a large abundance of sand lance, a favorite prey. Along the mid-Atlantic, many humpback whales were seen in coastal waters, demonstrating to passengers that humans and the oceans are inextricably interconnected. The whales’ close proximity to shore helps to drive the point home that actions taken on land can quickly impact these majestic creatures.

entangled m

A bystander in Virginia Beach gets a close look at a humpback swimming in the surf.

Although whale watching in the Northeast has ended for the year, whale watching season is just beginning in Virginia Beach, where whales are often seen as they migrate from northern summer feeding grounds to southern winter breeding grounds. Two Whale SENSE participants, Rudee Tours and Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, are starting their seasons ahead of schedule due to the early arrival of whales off the Virginia coast.

“The early return of our annual visitors gives us a unique opportunity to share our scientific research and conservation efforts with even more guests during their Sea Adventures,” says Alexis Rabon, lead naturalist and boat programs coordinator with the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. “We appreciate the Whale SENSE program, and the accreditation provides that extra layer of certainty that our guests will get an incredible, thoughtful and well-designed trip full of education and excitement.”

Find a Whale SENSE company in your area.

Field Notes: Longing For Silence

Submitted by Theresa Soley, naturalist for Gastineau GuidingTEShalibut

Longing for silence
Late this afternoon on the west side of Admiralty Island, after rounding Point Retreat, a large group of boats was hugging the shoreline. A dozen boats were gliding south, following a group of humpback whales. Twelve boats in one small area is heavy boat traffic, which forces captains to make tricky maneuvers behind the wheel.  
And of course the whales also have to deal with this traffic jam.
My goal as a naturalist is to give the guests on my boat the most spectacular wilderness experience possible.  I want people to feel a connection, and love, for this wild ecosystem.  And I want my guests to take this love home with them. I hope that their experience will inspire environmentally friendly decisions after the return home, even to landlocked Oklahoma.
When there’s chaos on the water, loud engine noise and competition for the best spot, the powerful silence I wish to share with my guests is obscured.  Rather everyone is in the sort of traffic on the water that they experience on the interstate in urban places. This is not the pristine ecosystem I wish to share, not the one that will inspire love for wild places and conservation of them. 
When there are no other boats nearby, and ours can turn the engines off, my guests experience a sweet silence, shattered by whale blows. They experience flat silver water and snow covered mountains, salmon breaching and eagles calling. Today there was too much boat noise on the water to hear nature’s whisper.
It’s a tricky balance, sharing whales in order to inspire a love for their marine home, without disrupting the animal’s behaviors. If guests are returning home inspired and moved by the natural world, it’s worth it. If they’re not returning home with a desire to conserve pristine places, it’s not worth it for the whales being stalked.

Silence may be just as endangered, and powerful, as humpbacks themselves. In my opinion, boats should spread out, look further for wildlife, rather than crowd small spacesListening to humpback pectoral fin slaps with heavy traffic.

Field Notes: Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center Wants to Know If YOU have Whale SENSE!

Reposted with permission from Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center. Original blog post can be found here.


Do You Have Whale SENSE?


As the years progress, the use of the oceans for recreational purposes has increased dramatically, leading to a greater number of people living near the ocean, traveling to the ocean, and using recreational boats throughout our oceans. Many don’t realize that, although jet skiing, parasailing, and fishing are all great entertainment activities used at the beaches, every extra boat that is in the waters has an impact on the marine mammals that inhabit those waters. The interest in the marine mammals encountered in the oceans has led to the increase in commercial whale watching vessels as well. However, many of these commercial whale watching vessels, unlike the recreational boats, follow guidelines on how to minimize the disturbances to the whales. Such guidelines include coordinating times with other vessels, slowing speeds as they approach, approaching whales from the side or behind and parallel to the animal’s course, speed and direction, never approaching within 100 feet of whales, and limiting the time spent with an individual whale. As part of the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center Vessel, I, as well as every captain, naturalist, and intern have been trained through Whale SENSE. This is a term that is frequently stated on each of the whale watching tours but what exactly does it mean? Whale SENSE is a voluntary program that trains the crew of the vessel on the laws, guidelines, and species behaviors that are important in providing responsible whale watching tours. The focus of Whale SENSE is to; Stick to NOAA’s whale watching guidelines,Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers of the whale protection laws and guidelines, Notify appropriate networks of whales in distress, Set example for other boaters, and Encourage ocean stewardship.


So why is Whale SENSE so important while maneuvering throughout the ocean? Many people have heard that with the increase of boats in the ocean, the noise in the ocean has also increased. This affects the ability of marine mammals to communicate with one another as well as the health and well-being of the mammals. Even just a small boat traveling at 5 knots in shallow water has been shown to reduce the communication range of bottlenose dolphins within 50 meters by 26 percent and this only increases with boats moving at faster speeds (Prideaux 2012). What is not as common of knowledge is that many times whales and dolphins are unable to avoid the ships thus leading to collisions, many of which go unnoticed. The number of deaths from these collisions is far higher that what the figures suggest based upon the fact that so many collisions are unnoticed or not reported. (

Unlike the commercial whale watching vessels that have restrictions, schedules, and are many times trained through a program such as Whale SENSE, recreational boats are not capped, coordinated, or restricted to a schedule and each individual boat can cause harm to the whale and dolphin community as a whole. Even if there are no collisions involved, forcing the animals away from an area can also have significant consequences. By avoiding a boat or being forced from that habitat, individual animals may be forced to make energetic trade-offs or shift their tactics to cope with the disturbance which can affect their energy demands, or their metabolic rate and use of energy reserves. Especially if the mammals were feeding and were forced to leave the area, thus losing their energy source and using more energy to avoid the disturbance. In some instances the disturbance forces the mammals to abandon places that have been important for feeding, breeding, or resting and in the instances that the mammals remain, the regular harassment of boat traffic can decrease their fitness and reproductive success (Prideaux 2012).  In short, disturbance from boats turn the attention of whales and dolphins away from essential activities such as foraging, breeding, socializing, and feeding in order to focus on avoiding the boats ( It has been found that in many instances, the boat avoidance behaviors used by the whales and dolphins are the same as those used to get away from predators (Prideaux 2012). It is important to recognize the impact that these boats have on such incredible creatures so that guidelines can be followed and precautions taken in order to protect them and their habitat.

On the American Star of the Cape May Whale Watch Research Center, many of the natural behaviors of the whales and dolphins have been observed. We have seen the bottlenose dolphins feeding, mating, and socializing which has been an incredible opportunity. The reason we are able to view these dolphins in their habitat performing such natural behaviors is that we take caution in approaching and viewing them. By following the Whale SENSE guidelines, we can approach the dolphins with such care as to not disturb their natural behaviors. Taking these precautions allow one to observe the beauty of these creatures while respecting the habitat that they live in. This can ensure that the mammals return to the place that they know is safe for them feed, mate, and give birth in order for us to continue our research and observations of their natural behaviors. It is important for everyone that enjoys the beauty and recreation of the oceans to understand that we are entering a habitat that belongs to the whales and dolphins and therefore need to respect the individuals and their environment. So next time you are on a boat, ask yourself, do you have Whale SENSE?

Kailee Felix, University of South Carolina,

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center

Works Cited
Prideaux, M., 2012. The impact of recreational boats around whales and dolphins in their Australian habitats: A preliminary review for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Revised 24th May 2012), International Fund for Animal Welfare, Sydney, Australia

Field Notes: Calves Galore in Juneau!

Contributed by Scott Ranger from Gastineau Guiding, Whale SENSE Alaska participating company since 2015

Our Juneau whales this season include at least three cows and calves, all of whom arrived early, either in late April or early May.

1447, Juneauite’s calf stuck close to mom for a month, then has gotten a bit frisky. First by lifting its rostrum out of the water quite a bit and then venturing on to some breaching, most of them reaching about half of the body length out of the water. It has been very shy about showing its flukes, and at the end of June is not seen far from mom doing lots of shallow dive with her. Juneauite’s last calf was 2013.
1538, Flame’s calf seems to be getting the name “Tinder” which keeps with the them with 2013’s calf “Spark”. This calf has been doing lots of tail thrashing and peduncle throws with a few low breaches thrown in. It has been doing the sidestroke and shows the left side of its flukes and seems partial to that side. That fluke is mostly white.
1783, Tucker was a surprise as many of us thought she was a male! But lo, and behold, *she* shows up with a calf this year! Like the other calves, it sticks very close to mom, even in late June. It likes to do tail slaps and some short head stands. It’s tail is entirely dark, broad and sharply serrated.