Watch Out For Whales—Part II

Watching whales is a great cruising experience - but not too close, please!

Collisions with whales and dolphins are becoming an increasing concern for offshore cruisers, as I outlined in a previous post. But up until recently there has been no serious attempt made to quantify the level of actual collision events, or to plot their geographical distribution. Obviously, having some idea of where and when collisions might take place would be really useful information for any crew intending to sail through areas where whales are prevalent, especially as the consequences of a collision with a whale can have dire consequences for both yacht and whale.

Thankfully, a recently published scientific paper  by Fabian Ritter has made a good start in correcting that deficiency. Through an intensive internet search, and subsequently via a co-operative link involving an online questionnaire with destination voyaging website Noonsite, he has been able to piece together a picture of the current situation with regards to whale collisions with yachts worldwide. The paper is well argued and accessible, and makes for interesting reading for anyone with an interest in whales and dolphins, or planning to sail through waters they are known to frequent.

What Is The Scale Of The Problem?

The numbers are sobering, with a total of 111 collisions and 57 near misses recorded between 1996 – 2010, with 75% of all incidents between 2002 – 2010 suggesting an increasing trend. The North Atlantic topped the regional list for incidents with 41.8%, followed by the South Pacific with 16.4%. There were several reports of crew members being hurt in collisions as well as damage to the yacht involved. In 42.9% of the cases where damage was reported, sailing could only be continued with some restriction, whilst seven strikes (11.1%) resulted in a total loss of the vessel – ouch!

Not that it was all one sided – in 18.3% of the cases blood was seen in the water after the collision, and in a couple of cases the whale was either definitely dead or considered certain to die. And previously published research suggests that this is likely to be an underestimate, due to the difficulty in ascertaining the severity of injury to the animal in the aftermath of a collision.

Is It All Our Fault?

It is not the case that all of the incidents involved a vessel simply ramming a snoozing whale – in some cases surfacing animals hit the underside of vessels, which might support the generally held idea that running an engine or generator in the presence of whales may help avoid such incidents. And there were several reports of animals displaying inquisitive or aggressive behaviour, including physical contact with vessels of varying degrees of severity, perhaps the most extreme of which can be seen in this video clip from South Africa.

The study identifies a number of factors that may play a part in causing a collision, and unsurprisingly speed is top of the list. As many of the reports came from the racing and regatta world, maybe it’s the case that with fast moving boats the likelihood of the boat or the whale avoiding a collision due to higher speed may be a factor, slower cruising boats may allow whales more time to get out of the way, or have more time to alter course around animals in their path.

What Can Be Done To Minimise The Risks?

Keeping a good look out must help, and should certainly be considered in areas known to be hotspots for whales, as in 48.6% of collisions the animals were not seen beforehand. Many whale species gather in loose aggregations, so seeing one whale may be a sign that there are others around. Obviously, this is a lot easier with a large crew, and it’s also the case that many collisions (17.1%) took place during the hours of darkness where a careful watch might not make much difference. And understanding ways that might help you avoid a collision when in the company of whales, as I outlined in my previous post, should be required knowledge for any offshore sailing crew, especially those about to cross the North Atlantic in the annual migration – like us.

Russell Leaper, a whale researcher with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and himself a keen sailor has been co-ordinating data collection on collision incidents for the IWC. He commented that ‘ we have received no reports of  apparently pre-meditated aggressive attacks from whales and most reports of aggressive behaviour towards yachts are likely to be whales that were startled and then thrash around’. He also added that ‘we still don’t really know if making noise like switching on the engine reduces risk but if you know that whales are around the safest thing is to slow down and keep a good lookout. If you do see a whale in the distance remember there may be others much closer.’

It’s unlikely that the full picture emerged during this study, though, and given that the statistics indicate an increasing level of near-misses and collisions, the International Whaling Commission have initiated an online Ship Strike Database with specific reference to yachts. So if you missed out on the original survey and have been involved in a near miss or collision with a whale or dolphin, a report submitted through the IWC Database will help to build a more complete picture of this worrying trend, and help researchers come up with more informed ways to help us, and the whales, sleep more easily.

{ 13 comments… add one }

  • Bob Bechler November 12, 2011, 7:50 pm

    I am not convinced that the number of reported sightings increasing in recent years means that the number of encounters is increasing. More likely the reports are increasing due to awareness and ease of reporting. I have had dozens of encounters with whales, some very close, and have never reported them. Had no reason to and had no central place for reporting them.

    Reply
    • Colin November 13, 2011, 2:28 pm

      Hi Bob

      you may be right, as it’s a common problem in terms of quantifying numbers from public sightings – there are more of us out there, so more whales get recorded. It’s also true that unless you know that reports are needed, and where to send them, many sighting go unrecorded.

      But are there are still valuable uses for such data, in terms of regularity of sightings, distribution and season, all of which can help to paint a more accurate picture, enabling researchers to better understand what’s really happening out there. So do send your sightings in if you get the chance.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Westbrook November 13, 2011, 12:37 pm

    Several whales swam alongside Sea Devil for an hour or more during a July, 2008, night sail across the Stellwagen Bank. I never saw them, but heard their breathing when they breached. It took me 15 minutes or so the realize what that peculiar recurring noise must be.
    My guess is right whales, which at other times I have seen there during the day.

    Reply
  • Colin November 13, 2011, 2:33 pm

    Hi Westbrook

    hearing but not seeing whales is a spooky experience – and you hope they are not in front of you!

    I once spent a month in New England visiting all of the major whale watching venues as part of a research fellowship, and it was a magical place. During maybe eight sea voyages I saw humpbacks, fin and minke whales, but never a right whale, one of the most endangered whale species in the world. You’re very lucky to have seen them.

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
  • Stefan van der Borght May 13, 2012, 1:09 pm

    Read “Survive the Savage Sea” for an immensely interesting and gripping account of how the wooden schooner “Lucette” was lost off the Galapagos Islands in I believe 1972 to an attack from Orcas. The MacDougal family and deckhand spent 6 weeks or so drifting before being picked up by a Japanese trawler. Some good lessons to be learned from their experiences….

    Reply
  • frank reveil August 29, 2012, 9:19 pm

    Your car is built to sustain a hit against a dear why shouldn’t your boat be build to survive a bump a with floatsomes or whales?

    Reply
  • Ron September 4, 2012, 8:29 pm

    We had a close encounter with whales on the Chesapeake Bay some years ago. We were heading south toward Annapolis just north of the bay bridge. At the time we were on our Seidelman 25. I can tell you being within a stones throw of a pod of Humpback Whales on a 25 ft boat can be intimidating. We shut down the out board and just drifted in a slow turn away from them trying to give them as much space as possible. The coast guard was notified and they put out a Pan Pan it was tense. Great topics, take care, Ron

    Reply
    • Colin September 5, 2012, 9:19 am

      Hi Ron

      Glad to hear you made it OK!

      It’s always nice to see whales, but – not too close…

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Mark Hoenke March 13, 2013, 11:27 pm

    Has any correletion been made between bottom color and encounters? I hear at one time that this was suspected but I never saw anything definitive.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie March 14, 2013, 1:58 pm

      Hi Mark

      Not that I know of, but – it depends who you ask.

      I spent any years as a whale watching and research project skipper, and I think whales (certainly rorquals) are most interested in white underbodies, perhaps because most of that family are white underneath. Certainly, I had more close encounters when we had white antifoulant than any other colour – which is why my wife insists we have black now!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Mark on ROXY April 10, 2014, 8:28 pm

    I have heard that the color of the bottom paint may influence the possibility of a hit. The inference was that if your bottom looks like an Orca you might get hit. Is this being studied or considered? They are intelligent critters, it seems like a proper protocol could b established. Perhaps a universal pinger of a particular frequency might be learned by them or at least alert the whales we are there.

    Reply
    • John April 11, 2014, 9:18 am

      Hi Mark,

      Sorry, I really don’t know and Colin, our expert on such things is out cruising and away from internet.

      Reply
  • Mark on ROXY April 10, 2014, 10:41 pm

    Thanks. Sort of goes with what I’ve heard.

    We are yellow VIVID with blue trim. GO BLUE.

    Reply

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