Can a small boat harm a whale if it hits them?

When most folks think of whales, the large baleen whales most often come to mind. Depending on species, these animals can attain massive sizes, from 20’ all the way up to 100’. And because the average recreational vessel is between 15-40’, it’s easy to assume that small boats don’t pose a risk to these animals. However, a growing body of evidence is revealing that even small boats can cause fatal injuries to whales of all sizes (see “More Information” below).

Vessel collisions are one of the greatest threats to large baleen whales and one of the leading causes of death to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Although impacts from smaller boats might not result in broken bones, they can still inflict other serious injuries, such as internal hemorrhaging and fatal propeller lacerations. Occurrences like this happen more often than one might think. 

Back in February of 2021, a recreational boat in Florida waters struck not only one right whale but a mom-calf pair. Shortly after, the calf was found deceased with massive cuts on her body from the boat’s propellers. The mother, a 19 year old female named Infinity, was sighted shortly after with propeller cuts and has not been sighted since. With only ~70 reproductively active female North Atlantic right whales remaining, both Infinity and her calf were critical players in the survival of this endangered species.                       

In addition to physical injury, harm comes in other forms. Harassment by small boats can change whales’ natural behaviors. Overcrowding, pursuing, and closely approaching whales, even if accidentally, can cause stress and interrupt their feeding efforts. And it’s important to remember that changing whales’ behaviors is illegal according to federal law. 

There are many ways that you can ensure that your vessel doesn’t pose a threat to whales: 

Written by Thomas Zoutis, Intern with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation – Updated 8/14/2023

Scroll to Top