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Warning To Whale Watchers

Whale watching is as much a New England activity as eating creamy clam chowder, cracking open lobster, or taking in the fall colors.

That simple, innocent image has been hurt, however, by two recent accidents in which whales were rammed by high-speed whale-watching boats.

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The collisions, which killed a minke whale and injured a humpback whale, have prompted soul searching in a $24-million-a-year industry dedicated to celebrating Earth's largest mammal.

Some marine conservationists argue that the business must be better regulated and that boat captains should be forced to slow down in areas where whales feed.

"I still feel horrible," said Capt. Bill Sanchez of the Millennium catamaran, which hit the humpback whale last month. "I can still feel that bump when it hit the ship. I never wanted to hurt any of these animals."

"Something should be done about the speed limits because right now, there are none," Sanchez said.

On Aug. 2, the 120-foot Millennium, one of the newest high-speed catamarans, struck and injured a 2-year-old humpback whale off Stellwagen Bank, at the northern tip of Cape Cod. Sanchez said he sped up to about 21 mph because he thought there were no whales in the area.

On Saturday, the 80-foot-long Whale Watch cruise ship struck and killed a 20-foot minke whale while on its way back to Cape Cod's Barnstable Harbor, according to Mason Weinrich of the Cetacean Research Unit in Gloucester.

Horrified passengers said the whale's body was gored and bloody when it emerged in the boat's wake. Officials from the company that owns the boat did not return phone calls seeking comment on Monday.

The U.S. Coast Guard has scheduled a meeting next week that will focus on the shared interest between boats and those who seek to protect marine mammals.

Federal regulations require that whale-watch vessels stay at least 100 feet from whales and never approach them head-on. But often that is difficult when some ships can reach speeds of more than 40 mph.

"There are currently restrictions on how close the boats can get to endangered species," said Lt. Joe Duffy of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Division. "But there are no restrictions on how fast the boats can go."

National regulations for whale-watching tour companies were proposed in the early 1990s. But many New England companies rejected the idea, saying they already had adequate guidelines, according to Nina Young, a research scientist for the Center for Marine Conservation, based in Washington, D.C.

"Because the New England congressional delegation was very strong back then, those whale-watching regulations were witdrawn," Young said. "Now is a good time to revisit the whole question."

Weinrich said setting speed limits of about 13 mph in areas such as Stellwagen Bank, a protected marine sanctuary, would be a good place to start. Still, he acknowledged, such restrictions may be hard to enforce.

This summer has been one of the busiest seasons for more than 20 whale-watching companies in New England. Passengers typically pay an average of $24 for a half-day trip to encounter humpbacks, minke, and fin whales.

Whale watching as a commercial activity began in North America in 1955 along the Southern California coast. New England has since grown to account for nearly half of all whale-watching tours on the continent, according to the New England Whale Watching Association.

"There is a growing trend in New England to use bigger and faster ships, but are we really looking at what impact it will have?" Young said. "We really need to ask ourselves if it is necessary to get from one place to another at such a pace that it jeopardizes people and animals."

Written by Paisley Dodds