Vulnerable sea mammals deserve our respect and protection

It was the end of January, and I was the 4-8 watch officer on an oceanographic ship working near the Hawaiian islands of Kahoolawe and Maui. Listening to a Sean Na’auao CD and enjoying the beautiful sunset, a sudden movement broad on our starboard bow caught my attention. About 200 yards away, a grayish-black behemoth of the deep rose out of the water, its rippled skin and long “arm” fins identifying it as an adult humpback whale. The whale breached majestically, framed by the blue Hawaiian sky and the fading orange-green winter light. Concerned there might be other whales nearby, I throttled down to zero rpms and put the z-drives in neutral. Not a minute later, a V-shaped tail came up out of the water and slapped a “hello” on the surface before the whale returned to the deep.

That “YouTube moment” off the coast of Maui was one of a number of memorable sightings at sea I’ve been lucky enough to experience. Others include the pod of porpoises that swarmed around our car carrier on a moonlit night off of the Japanese island of Honshu; walruses sunning themselves on the rocks near Cape Greig, Alaska, as our fish processing ship passed by; and the hundreds of dolphins that “escorted” our dredge as we headed back to Balboa, Panama, on a sunny January day. Every one of these unique encounters occurred in far-flung seas of the world, but they had one thing in common: Each involved a species of marine mammal.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), marine mammals are defined as having “unique physical adaptations that allow them to thrive in the marine environment with extreme temperatures, depths, pressure and darkness.” There are at least 120 species of marine mammals, divided into four broad taxonomic groups. The first — cetaceans — includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. The second group is composed of seals, sea lions and walruses — the pinnipeds. The third group is the sirenians, in particular manatees and dugongs. The fourth taxonomic group is composed of the marine fissipeds, polar bears and sea otters.

Because they share the waterways with ships, tugs, recreational boaters and all other manner of watercraft, there are many state, federal and international laws that have been enacted to protect marine mammals. State laws such as Florida’s Manatee Sanctuary Act, which established protected areas for these marine mammals in Florida coastal waters, and Washington state’s whale protection laws have mandated additional marine mammal safeguards. A federal law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), makes it illegal to “harass, feed, capture, collect or kill any marine mammal.” Other federal laws include the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which helps protect species facing extinction, and the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), which addresses reducing the impact of commercial fishing on marine mammals. Globally, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are two important laws that deal with the protection and conservation of marine mammals.

On a sunny March day, my wife and I boarded a 100-foot passenger vessel at the public dock in Langley, Wash. We were there for a cruise to watch gray whales. Not long after boarding, the Coast Guard-licensed master went through the pre-departure safety announcements, and then we got underway. The skipper maneuvered our vessel to within about 200 yards of one of the gray whales, then shut down the engines and drifted while we got a good look. One of the passengers asked if we could get closer to the whale so he could get a better picture, and the answer was a definitive “NO.” In fact, the captain announced over the public address system that, by state and federal law, we were not allowed to harass any marine mammal — and that included the gray whale we were watching at the time. The skipper obviously took his professional responsibilities seriously, since running afoul of the MMPA can result in a $100,000 fine and a year in prison.

On the East Coast, merchant mariners must be vigilant to avoid one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, the North Atlantic right whale. Hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1900s, the threat from whaling has been eliminated by regulations prohibiting the practice, but these gentle denizens of the deep are still imperiled. Migrating between their feeding grounds up by Canada to their calving areas near Georgia and Florida places them close to busy shipping lanes, and it is here that these whales face their greatest risk: getting hit by a ship.

To keep North Atlantic right whales out of harm’s way as much as possible, NOAA made changes to traffic separation schemes into major ports such as Boston, and developed recommended alternatives to traditional coastwise shipping routes within 20 miles of major East Coast ports. In 2008, recognizing that more needed to be done, NOAA mandated a 10-knot speed limit for ships during certain times of the year in different areas along the East Coast to help minimize the possibility of whale deaths caused by ship strikes. NOAA monitors the speed of commercial vessels by tracking ships’ automated identification system (AIS) readouts, and recently a ship was clocked ignoring the 10-knot speed limit — garnering a $50,000 fine for speeding. The ESA provides for fines of up to $50,000 and a year in prison per violation.

With so much at stake, shipping companies need to ensure that their officers and crews know and follow the applicable state, federal and international laws designed to protect marine mammals. Guidance on adhering to the regulations should be included in the vessels’ International Safety Management Code procedures. Training to help crews deal with whale and other marine mammal encounters in accordance with established laws should be conducted on board as well.

For millennia, sea mammals have been merchant mariners’ companions as we have sailed the seas and explored the last frontier on Earth. Watching the majestic spectacle of a 50-foot, 30-ton whale rising out of the ocean should, in my opinion, be reason enough to want to help protect marine mammals. Failing that, then the prospect of a $50,000 to $100,000 fine and a year in prison should do the trick.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff