A change in the seasonal speed cap to protect endangered whales could be problematic for cruise ships at Port Canaveral, potentially causing both safety and navigational concerns, as well as impacting passenger operations. Officials are protesting the proposed rule change, claiming unreasonable overreach.
Rule Change Expands Speed Limit Zone
Vessels operating in certain near shore waters where critically endangered north Atlantic right whales are at risk of injuries must follow seasonal speed limits to minimize that risk.
The current management areas include only the most dramatic risk zones near very busy harbors and areas where commercial fishing is most popular.
The proposed rule change would greatly extend the zone with the seasonal speed limit of 10 knots (11.5 miles per hour) further south and expand the areas of coverage. The new zone would be as far south as central Florida, covering Port Canaveral, and would extend five nautical miles (5.75 miles) out to sea.
The new rule would apply to all vessels 35 feet and longer, rather than the current rule’s application to vessels 65 feet and longer. This means more fishing vessels and local boaters would also be impacted, not just cruise ships.
“It’s going to impact a lot of people. Not just big ships, the general public is going to be affected,” said Captain John W. Murray, Port Canaveral Director and CEO, speaking at a Canaveral Port Authority commission meeting on Wednesday, August 17, 2022.
“When ships come up the channel, they sometimes have to exceed 10 knots in order to maintain safe steerageway making the turn into the harbor,” Murray said.
Impact on Cruise Ships
The proposed speed limit change could have a potentially dramatic impact on cruise ships, particularly as Port Canaveral is forecasting record-breaking numbers of cruise ship calls in the coming months and into 2023.
“As a result of having to slow down these cruise ships, not only does that add an extra level of danger to the operation, it also means this 10-knot speed is going to apply to our pilot boats,” said Ben Borgie, co-chair of Canaveral Pilots.
For a pilot to safely board a cruise ship, the pilot boat must be traveling faster than the ship. This means that to comply with the new regulation, cruise ships would have to slow even further.
“We won’t be able to bring in four cruise ships in one hour. We’ll have to spread them out. That means we’ll be boarding those cruise ships at 8, 9 in the morning,” Borgie said. “This is a big, big problem for us operationally.”
If the cruise ships must be spread out so drastically, Port Canaveral may not be able to accommodate as many vessels in a single day as is sometimes scheduled.
The new rule is a seasonal limit that would be in effect from November 15 through April 15 each year. This is a time period when Caribbean cruises, particularly holiday sailings, are exceedingly popular.
Port Canaveral routinely has three, four, or even five cruise ships in port simultaneously, especially on weekends. On some days, the port may have as many as six cruise ships docked, as well as local traffic in and out of the port channel.
While no one disputes the need to protect North Atlantic right whales – there are believed to be fewer than 350 individuals and 100 reproductively active females remaining in the world today – it should be noted that very few of the whales venture as far south as central Florida.
“It’s insane that NOAA would extend the zone this far down,” said Malcolm McLouth, former Port Canaveral CEO and a whale watching volunteer. “If we get more than two or three right whales here it’s really an unusual situation.”
The North Atlantic right whale is a baleen whale, typically feeding right at the surface and swimming slowly as it skims for food. Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear are the largest threats to these peaceful whales.
These whales migrate from the Labrador Sea between Canada and Greenland to coastal waters off Georgia and northern Florida, where they give birth to their calves. Seeing one of these whales from a cruise ship can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for passengers.