(FloridaToday.com) - Get too close and you could get slapped with a fine, or worse - a massively powerful fin.
On Tuesday, state wildlife officers warned surfers, paddle-boarders and others to keep away from a 50-foot-long North Atlantic right whale and its calf, which swam just offshore of Cocoa Beach.
"It was like they were herding them. It was crazy," Julie Albert said of the surfers and paddle-boarders she witnessed approaching the whales more than a mile south of the Cocoa Beach Pier.
Federal law requires that watercraft and aircraft stay at least 500 yards from right whales, thought to number only about 500 individuals.
Violations can result in civil or criminal penalties of up to $50,000 and a year in prison.
Albert runs the Marine Resources Council's right whale monitoring program. The Palm Bay nonprofit group coordinates about 800 volunteers who learn to identify right whales and report sightings to a hotline that warns ship captains of whales in the area.
Albert witnessed the same problem Monday in Melbourne Beach, when some boaters approached a bit too close to the same whales, as the mother whale and her 20-foot-long calf frolicked offshore.
On Tuesday, two patrol boats from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warned people to keep their distance but did not issue any citations, said Lenny Salberg, an FWC spokesman. "We're just making sure people stay away from the whales, but if anybody gets close they will be fined," Salberg said.
Typically each winter, pregnant right whales swim more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds off Canada and New England to South Carolina, Georgia and northeastern Florida to give birth and nurse their young.
Early whalers gave right whales their name because they were the "right" whales to kill. They swim slowly and close to shore and float when dead, making them easy to hunt. They yielded large amounts of oil and baleen - an elastic substance once used in buggy whips and women's corsets.
Ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear are among the species' biggest threats.
But whale advocates worry powerful underwater sonic blasts for naval training and planned seismic tests to search for oil and gas - from just south of Cape Canaveral to Delaware - could harm the species, as well as other marine mammals in the Atlantic.
Right whales are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To lessen risk of collisions between the whales and boats, federal law requires vessels 65 feet long and greater to slow to 10 knots or less in seasonal management areas along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. That includes the calving and nursery area in the Southeastern U.S.