The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Watch Out For Whales, Part I

Another race, another whale collision, yet again ending in the loss of a boat and injury to a whale. Thankfully no loss of life, although one day that may not be the case. What is happening out on the oceans? Pirates everywhere, climate change driven hurricanes, and now homicidal whales?

Well, the first and most obvious cause is that there are far more of us out there, so the odds of collision have gone up. Whales seasonally inhabit many sea areas that are also cruising waters for yachts, such as Tonga, Hawaii, New England and the Azores. And as more yachts start cruising in higher latitudes where whales have always been more numerous, the odds of a close encounter increase again.

Equally, some species of whales are estimated to have increased their numbers dramatically after the cessation of hunting. According to International Whaling Commission statistics, humpbacks have increased by 13.9% in some Australian waters. In the North Atlantic, minke whales have increased by over 8%, possibly through taking advantage of the ecological niche vacated by the great whales after centuries of overexploitation.

Whales obviously don’t spend all of their time in the depths feeding, being mammals they have to spend at least part of their time at the surface, breathing. But they also sleep at or near the surface for part of their day, usually at night when they are least likely to be spotted. And although they ‘sleep with one eye open’, there is some evidence that many whales have suffered hearing damage due to exposure to the extraordinarily loud noises in the oceans caused by military sonar and seismic activities. And there is so much more background noise in the oceans today—an estimated increase in background sound of 15db over the last fifty years—that only really loud sounds might now be heard by a snoozing whale, and the quiet approach of a sailing vessel may simply be undetected.

Working in marine life research has meant a lot of time spent in company with whales, dolphins and sharks, and for 99% of the time it has been nothing but wonderful, although we’ve always been very careful to remember that we’re around wild animals. Do whales approach boats? Yes, certainly, sometimes for hours; one minke whale repeatedly dived underneath, rolling upside down, examining our beautiful Frers-designed underbody in a manner that might easily have been construed as amorous. Thankfully, whales have excellent spatial sense, and it never touched us. Can whales be aggressive? Well we’ve been buzzed at close range by a bull pilot whale when a tiny calf approached us, so I wouldn’t doubt it. And there have been well documented reports of whales damaging boats, usually after a collision with a member of a pod.

And collisions can occur all too easily: In bad weather or an ocean swell it is far from easy to see a whale until it’s very close indeed. Heading out into a big Celtic Sea swell in the first light of dawn, we were suddenly shocked out of our torpor by a volcanic eruption of fetid air and water less than 10 feet away, followed by a shiny black freight train going in the opposite direction—our first fin whale. And basking sharks, which can hardly be described as intellectual giants, generally won’t even try to get out of your way, so fixated are they on scooping up plankton.

Is there anything we, as sailors, can do to minimise the risks? Well, most whale grounds and seasons are fairly well known, so advance research when planning a passage may help. If a passage involves crossing a continental shelf break (where whales and other sea life gather), doing so in daylight might help. Groups of whales might best be avoided, especially as calves are likely to be present and any perceived threat to them might easily be construed as aggression and be met with the same in return. Most experts agree that the best course of action is to slow down and make a gentle course alteration away from the animals. Running the engine may warn the whales of your presence, which might help. And if your yacht is approached, try to maintain your course and speed to minimise the risk of a collision. And cross your fingers!

There may even be a technical fix coming at some stage. Dr. Michel André has developed an electronic approach called the Whale Anti Collision System, that employs an array of hydrophones to listen for whale echolocation clicks to establish the presence of whales in an area. They believe that at some stage in the future they will be able to provide advance warning of the presence of whales to yacht races passing through such areas, and so, hopefully, reduce the risks to both whales, yachts and their crews. Perhaps such information might even be available to cruising yachts one day.

In every area of the oceans there are research groups such as the Sea Watch Foundation (UK) in the NE Atlantic who actively solicit whale sightings from yachts that venture offshore. Not only is this a valuable resource from a research point of view, but the patterns of distribution that emerge may be useful to all of us cruisers in the future when planning routes across the oceans.

French skippers over here look at our white antifouling and laugh, saying that big whales just love white underbodies; who knows? Lou says that the white has got to go, and we’ll go for ‘stealth’ black. Oh well, better safe than sorry!

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