See a Spout

See a Spout is a WDC education project aimed at promoting responsible boat handling by recreational boat users (as opposed to commercial whale watch boats) around whales. The program is focused in the Gulf of Maine, particularly on Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. It includes presentations at Boater Safety Courses and the distribution of information throughout the states of Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire to spread the word about appropriate boat handling around whales.

History of the Program

In the summer of 1998, high-speed whale watch vessels in Massachusetts struck two whales, with one strike resulting in a fatality. As a result of these strikes, the Northeast Large Whale Implementation Team convened a Whale Watch Advisory Group (WWAG) consisting of members of the commercial whale watch industry, conservation groups, and representatives from NOAA Fisheries and the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS). These meetings resulted in NOAA Fisheries issuing new whale watch guidelines, as well as an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) to solicit comments regarding the need for whale watching regulations in lieu of guidelines.

Although new whale watching guidelines were formulated, no mechanism for public outreach was incorporated to educate private boaters. As a result, a multi-phase program called "See A Spout, Watch Out" was developed as a cooperative outreach project of the International Wildlife Coalition (IWC) (now part of WDC) and the Sanctuary.


Phase one of this program targeted boaters through boater safety classes conducted by Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotillas, the Massachusetts Environmental Police, the regional Power Squadrons, and other boating organizations. In addition, posters and tide-chart rack cards are being placed at strategic locations such as boating supply stores, yacht clubs, and marinas. The second phase of this program included permanently fixed aluminum signs at boat ramps, fuel docks, and boat launches. Since the ANPRM was issued in January 2000 and NOAA Fisheries has not yet published a proposed rule, this program does not delineate specific regulations/guidelines but instead, uses catch phrases as guides to responsible vessel behavior around whales.

The Six Tips

1. See A Spout, Watch Out!

If you see a spout, or a tail, or a breaching whale, please slow down and post a lookout. Some whales dive 20 minutes or more searching for food. If you’ve seen one whale, many more could be close-maybe too close to your boat and its spinning propellers. Proceed cautiously!


2. Head On Is Wrong!

Don’t alter a whale’s path by cutting it off. When in sight of a whale, follow official guidelines and adhere to existing regulations that restrict or prohibit closely approaching whales. Always keep your boat a safe distance; don’t risk striking a whale. Federal law prohibits the harassment of all marine mammals. Federal NOAA Fisheries regulations and Massachusetts laws prohibit approaching the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale closer than 500 yards.


3. Lots Of Boats, Then Talk To Folks!

If there are other boats watching or traveling near whales, hail them on your VHF radio (channel 9 or 16) and coordinate your viewing efforts.


4. Avoid Trouble, Steer Clear of Bubbles!

Humpback whales sometimes feed by creating what are called “bubble clouds”. The whales blow bubbles below the surface of the water to confuse and condense schools of small fish. With mouths wide open, the whales surface through the middle of the bubble cloud engulfing large numbers of dazed fish. Bubble clouds look like light green, foamy patches on the surface of the water. Birds often hover over them to take advantage of the readily available fish. Never approach, or drive through, a bubble cloud as a feeding whale is likely to be just below the surface.


5. Don’t Chase, Give The Whales Space!

Closely approaching a whale may cause the animal to move away from its food source. Respect the whale’s behavior and keep your distance. If a whale moves away, don’t chase it. A cautious boater may bet to see whales feeding, playing or breaching. Enjoy the whales; don’t endanger them!


6. Drop Your Sails When Watching Whales!

A boat under sail may not be able to reduce speed or stop at a safe distance from a surfacing whale. When in the vicinity of whales, it is best to utilize your auxiliary motor and proceed cautiously.


You can find more about the program, and take a quiz to see how much you know at the official See a Spout website.