All endangered large whale species are vulnerable to collisions with large ships; and “ship strikes” are the greatest known threat to one of the world's rarest whales, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). The magnitude of this threat is likely to increase as maritime commerce expands. Factors influencing the incidence and severity of ship strikes are not well understood, although vessel speed appears to be a strong contributor. The purpose of this study was to characterize the hydrodynamic effects near a moving hull that may cause a whale to be drawn to or repelled from the hull, and to assess the accelerations exerted on a whale at the time of impact. Using scale models of a container ship and a right whale in experimental flow tanks, we assessed hydrodynamic effects and measured accelerations experienced by the whale model in the presence of a moving vessel. Accelerations at impact were measured while the whale was at the surface, for various vessel speeds, orientations of the whale relative to the vessel path, and distances off the direct path of the vessel. Accelerations experienced by the whale model in a collision: increased in magnitude with increasing ship speed; were not dependent on whale orientation to the vessel path; and decreased exponentially with increasing separation distances from the ship track. Subsequent experiments with the whale model submerged at one to two times the ship's draft indicated a pronounced propeller suction effect, a drawing of the whale toward the hull, and increased probability of propeller strikes resulting from this class of encounter. Measured accelerations are a proxy for impact severity, but do not constitute a detailed study of injury mechanism in a living animal, though they may help inform future work. We present a heuristic map of the hydrodynamic field around a transiting hull likely involved in close whale/ vessel encounters. These results may have bearing on policy decisions, particularly those involving vessel speed, aimed at protecting large whales from ship strikes worldwide.