ABOVE: A whale breaching onto a fishing boat off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts, on July 24 Justin Enggasser

This past weekend, on July 24, bystanders captured rare footage of a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) launching out of the water and landing on a nearby boat off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. This incident joins a handful of others in the past decade—including close calls in the same area just days before—in which whales have collided with seacraft, raising the question of just how aware the oceanic giants are of what’s going on at the surface.

John Calambokidis, a marine mammal biologist and research scientist with the Washington-based nonprofit Cascadia Research Collective, spoke with The Scientist after reviewing the footage. He notes that baleen whales such as humpbacks don’t have the same sensory capabilities as their echolocating, toothed relatives. And as a result, “every now and then we see this in our work; the whale will either be distracted when it’s feeding, or it might be engaged in social behavior or oblivious for other reasons,” he says. Even still, based on his 40-year career, Calambokidis says that “as a general rule, whales are pretty aware of their surroundings,” and that these collisions (at least those with small vessels) remain fairly rare.

He adds, however, that there are conditions that are more likely to lead to these sorts of encounters, and that the recent video touches on a few. 

That day off Plymouth, both fishers and whales had congregated off the coast because of a massive school of herring; in the video, there are more than a dozen vessels crowding the water around where the collision happened. This high density of vessels, Calambokidis says, “creates a proximity risk, just because that’s something humpback whales feed on as well.” Speaking to The Boston Herald, Laura Howes, director of the naturalist program at New England Aquarium Whale Watch, adds that “whales are pretty smart and can avoid boats, but with that many small recreational boats in the area, it’s like trying to feed in a rat’s nest of boats.” 

And while they don’t echolocate, humpback whales do rely on sound, and it’s likely the area around the schooling fish was quite loud, Calambokidis says, with engines and the pings of fishfinders creating a complicated underwater soundscape. It’s possible that the whale just got momentarily disoriented. He adds that he has noticed while tagging whales in areas with a lot of boat traffic, such as the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, that some animals seem less attentive to noise overall. “Those whales were some of the more oblivious I had seen to our approach to deploy the tag,” he says. “And I wondered the same thing, if at some point, there’s so much noise that they tune that out or ignore it.”

A screengrab of a tweet showing a whale breaching the water near a paddleboarder. 
The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) on Twitter

Harbor officials tell The New York Post that at the time of the incident, at least one additional patrol boat was already present in the area after another whale had bumped a vessel a few days prior. In both cases, the boats were not significantly damaged and no injuries were reported, although the Massachusetts Environmental Police are investigating the incident, according to the Herald. The status of the whales involved in the accidents remains unknown, although they did not appear to be injured. “This could have been much worse for all involved,” Plymouth Harbormaster Chad Hunter tells the Post. “Children like to lean over the side of the boat to watch the fish so it is very lucky that nobody got hurt here. An incident like this is pretty rare but very dangerous to boaters.”

To minimize the risk of these types of collisions, Calambokidis says that the best option is simply to give the animals space, at least 100 yards. “Any time you’re out on the water, try to keep your distance from whales if you see them in the area,” he tells The Scientist. “That’s the best way to keep both them and you safe.”