North Atlantic right whales were extensively hunted during the whaling era and have not recovered. One of the primary factors inhibiting their recovery is anthropogenic mortality caused by ship strikes. To assess risk factors involved in ship strikes, we used a multi-sensor acoustic recording tag to measure the responses of whales to passing ships and experimentally tested their responses to controlled sound exposures, which included recordings of ship noise, the social sounds of conspecifics and a signal designed to alert the whales. The whales reacted strongly to the alert signal, they reacted mildly to the social sounds of conspecifics, but they showed no such responses to the sounds of approaching vessels as well as actual vessels. Whales responded to the alert by swimming strongly to the surface, a response likely to increase rather than decrease the risk of collision.