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‘Don’t harass them.’ Experts explain whale behavior in Plymouth, warn boaters to stay clear

Both commercial and recreational fishing boats crowded the water off White Horse Beach in the area where humpback whales have been spotted.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PLYMOUTH — The trio of juvenile humpback whales who’ve been all over Plymouth Harbor for the past 10 days are focused on fish, not people, experts said Friday.

“They are very food focused. They’re not looking for anybody. They’re not looking for anything except for food,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “These animals are not eating in the wintertime. So they are completely obsessed with eating right now.”

Scientists and law enforcement officials held a press conference Friday outlining how the hundreds of boaters who have followed the whales into the harbor should conduct themselves. Commercial and recreational fishermen are in the waters hoping to catch menhaden and striped bass, officials said.

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The humpbacks are also following the fish, the experts said, and that is not at all unusual.

Bob Glenn of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries said the schools of menhaden first appeared off Plymouth about 10 days ago and have, somewhat unusually, stayed put. That won’t be permanent, he said.

“They could dissolve in a day,” Glenn said.

While the whales are juveniles somewhere between one and four years old, they are much, much larger than a kayaker, a paddleboarder, and, as was shown July 24, even a 19-foot boat.

That was when a humpback breached right next to the boat, rose into the air, and slammed down on the bow of the vessel, its weight so much greater than the entire boat itself that the stern and the engine were lifted out of the water.

A whale breached the water and landed on a small boat in Plymouth Harbor on Sunday morning.Town of Plymouth

None of the six people on the boat were hurt mainly because they had all gathered at the stern and no one was crushed beneath the whale’s body, officials said. It’s not certain the whale wasn’t hurt because internal injuries are known only after death, but the animal’s continued presence in the waters suggests it remains healthy, Asmutis-Silvia said.

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Still, the experts said, the next close encounter could turn out badly for those on boats and in the water.

“We want the public to be safe and we want the whales to be safe,” said Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Moran of the Massachusetts Environmental Police. “Don’t harass them ... or you will end up on the wrong side of the law.”

Keep a safe distance by staying at least 100 feet away from the whales, the officials said. And if the water starts roiling near your watercraft, move away quickly because that often means bait fish will soon too be followed by a whale engaging in “lunge feeding.”

“We actually don’t know how they find food, but they’ll detect these very dense schools of fish. They open their mouths and they charge through them,’’ Asmutis-Silvia said.

If you are on a motorized craft, and see a whale swimming close by, cut the engine until it swims past, reducing the chance of a propeller cutting into the animal, officials said.

“The interactions that we’ve seen recently jeopardize the safety of everyone involved. We’re very concerned about the human safety. We’re glad that nobody was hurt,” said Asmutis-Silvia.

Moran, of the Environmental Police, said on a weekday and during commercial striped bass season, some 200 boats are on the waters in the area. This coming weekend? He has no idea but expects a much larger number of watercraft.

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Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger. John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.