Speakers’ Corner – The Seas for Whales

I’m reminded of a couple who stayed with us at Powdermills the other week, who earlier on their holidays had been on Skye, whale watching.  But they didn’t see any due to the lousy weather and three-foot-high waves.  We joked that the whales must have been hiding under the water to avoid the sheet rain.  The couple, however, got a refund from a very generous captain. 

Ironically, last week’s Observer had a very moving article about the large numbers of cetaceans – the collective noun used to describe all species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises –dying because of collisions with ships, even in protected waters.  The report by Ida Emilie Steinmark cited the case of a female humpback whale spotted off the coast of British Colombia on its migration south and seemingly swimming without using her tail.  The researchers at BC Whales deduced this was most likely due to the whale having a broken back.  The researchers later discovered that the whale was one of those they had been following and had called Moon.  They believed Moon had made the 3,000-mile migration to Hawaii, but she hasn’t been seen since.

Thousands of whales are potentially being hit yearly due to the growth of worldwide shipping numbers quadrupling between 1992 and 2012. And the increase in traffic to Asia. Off Western Europe, the density of ships increased by a third in the mid-2010s.  A paper from Scotland’s Rural College states that traffic from cargo boats, fishing boats, and ferries has increased by 400%, even in protected areas, for example, around Skye in the Inner Hebrides.  This is home to a third of Scotland’s harbour porpoises. According to the International Whaling Commission, the risk of fatal ship strikes has ballooned. Its analysis suggests that vulnerable whale species are at risk globally, from blue whales in Chile to sperm whales in the Mediterranean.

But science is coming to the rescue.  Currently, two leading solutions are the rerouting of shipping lanes away from whale habitat, which despite being effective, rarely happens, and the other is limiting speed, which is difficult to enforce.  Speed limits are mandatory on America’s east coast to protect North Atlantic right whales, but limits are only ‘recommended’ on the west Coast. A hotspot here is the Santa Barbara channel in California, which has a busy shipping lane into Los Angeles and is home to endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales.  The University of Santa Barbara recorded high ship strikes of whales in 2018, 2019, and 2021.

To increase compliance with speed guidelines, the Whale Safe project offers a ‘whale presence rating,’ It hopes that if ship crews are more aware of whales around them, they might be more mindful.  So, information gathered from satellites, whale watching, and data from acoustic buoys is sent to ship captains to encourage them to slow down.  The results have seen 46% of ships following the guidelines in 2019 and 61.5% in 2022. But with the minimum speed of ships being 10 knots or 18.5km/ph, the probability of a whale dying of a strike is 50%.  And as the whale called Moon illustrates, not all struck whales die immediately. 

During the past decade, technically advanced detection systems have been able to send ‘whale alerts’ to ships’ captains of whales heading towards them, offering vessels the chance to change their courses.  The detection range of whales is between two to three kilometres.  The ideal would be detection from four kilometres.  But doubt remains among experts of ‘pings’ and speed limits complementing each other.  Others believe that only regulation will enforce compliance. When commercial whaling was banned in the 1980s, whale populations increased.  Therefore, it is likely that mandatory controls on speed limits, reporting whale collisions, and installing detector equipment on larger vessels will be necessary to control these incidents.

The researcher from British Columbia, who spotted Moon, hopes her story will encourage this and spur legislators to act locally and that if captains and crews think about Moon when they see a whale’s ‘blow,’ they may slow down.  And as to why Moon made the seemingly impossible journey to a breeding ground 3,000 miles away, the researcher can’t help wondering if Moon was pregnant. Long may Moon be a reminder that a fatal ship strike means the loss of a whale and a setback to a recovering species.