Why do whales get so close to boats near Plymouth?

Environment

Feeding humpback whales recently collided with several boats.

A humpback whale collides with a boat near Plymouth. The authorities are calling for extreme caution. Leo Engasser

Massachusetts has long been known as one of the best whale watching locations in the world. But recently, people enjoying the local waters have had an extremely close – and dangerous – look at these majestic creatures.

A young humpback whale pierced and landed on the bow of a small boat near White Horse Beach in Plymouth on Sunday. The dramatic incident was caught on camera. There were no injuries and the 19ft boat suffered moderate damage, but nothing affected its seaworthiness, according to a Publish of the city of Plymouth.

Just days earlier, a paddleboarder captured video of a whale hitting a small boat off Plymouth, sending it rocking back and forth but causing no serious damage. On the morning of July 19, another paddleboarder came within 25 feet of a surging whale.

So why the sudden wave of whale activity in this area? The answer, unsurprisingly, also lies below the surface. These humpback whales were drawn to the waters off Manomet Point by wonderful feeding opportunities.

In particular, three juvenile humpback whales engaged in a “physically active feeding behavior that is very unpredictable,” according to a Release of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. They feast on Atlantic menhaden, also known as “pogies”. These forage fish tend to congregate in large schools, creating an easy opportunity for predators to grab a meal. Humpback whales and striped bass are two such predators.

In turn, whales and bass attract humans, either anglers hoping for a catch or others hoping to catch a close glimpse of a whale. These factors have led officials to urge extreme caution as the conditions pose a safety hazard to humans and whales.

These humpback whales could be even more unpredictable than normal, due to their young age, shallow waters and encroachment from boats and paddleboards, officials said.

It is illegal to harass marine mammals, which includes any act of pursuit, torment or embarrassment that could injure or disrupt the feeding behavior of these creatures. Authorities recommend people on the water stay at least 100 feet away from the whales.

While feeding, the whales are distracted, focusing more on the fish than the boats around them. Humpback whales near Plymouth appear to engage in slit feeding, a tactic where the whales open their mouths wide and quickly gain speed either vertically or horizontally to consume a large amount of prey at once.

This can lead to close calls like Sunday’s incident. Researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies and Whale and Dolphin Conservation are investigating the collision and working to identify individual whales feeding in the area.

Humpback whales typically reach between 30 and 60 feet, depending MassWildlife. They can weigh between 23 and 30 tons. These baleen whales are easily identified by their white fins, button-like protrusions and double pear-shaped blowholes. Humpback whales can be found all over the world, but those that come to Massachusetts are part of a population native to the North Atlantic. They migrate annually between feeding and breeding grounds depending on the season. During the winter, humpback whales head for warmer waters to mate and give birth, but most of their feeding takes place between spring and fall in feeding grounds like the waters near Plymouth.

Humpback whales are popular with whale watchers because they often approach the shore and cross the surface of the water, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They filter feed on small crustaceans such as krill and small fish.

Earnest A. Martinez