Whale vs. Boat – How big of a problem is it?

You may have heard about the dead whale that was discovered underneath a ferry terminal in downtown Seattle recently. The female, a juvenile gray whale (http://seattletimes.com/html/latestnews/2025535515_apxferryterminalwhale.html) who appeared to have been in normal health, had already started to decompose and was emitting a strong odor when her body was found. She had several deep gashes along her back, and biologists later confirmed the cause of death: a propeller strike.

In a radio interview with KUOW (http://kuow.org/post/dead-gray-whale-found-under-seattle-ferry-terminal), one biologist with Cascadia Research Collective said that six to eight dead gray whales are found in Washington every year. Most die from starvation, ship strikes, or entanglement with fishing nets.

When it comes to ship strikes, fin whales are the most commonly hit, followed by humpbacks. According to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network (http://wildwhales.org/conservation/threats/collisions-between-vessels-and-whales), some large vessels, such as cruise ships, don’t even notice that they’ve hit a whale. This is also a problem for seals. Most seals are small enough to get caught between a large propeller and its cover, which can lead to gruesome “corkscrew” injuries (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/feb/26/sea-deaths-ship-propellers-corkscrew), or large gashes wrapping diagonally around their bodies.

Of course, perhaps the most famous ship-related incident happened in 2006, when Luna the orca whale was killed by a tugboat. The young orca had become friendly with humans after being separated from his pod, often swimming up to boats and attempting to play. At the time of his death, the issue of whether he should be relocated to join L-pod was still under debate, but was cut short by the sudden tragedy.

So what can we do to prevent ship-related deaths? One solution is aimed at helping whales right here on the West Coast. Scientists are tracking blue, humpback, and gray whales using satellite tags, which help pinpoint migration routes and feeding areas. The project, called WhaleWatch (http://www.umces.edu/cbl/whalewatch), aims to provide information for boats regarding what times and locations are the least likely to have whales present.
Even small boats can cause damage, so if you ever see a whale while out on the water, the best thing to do is to turn off your boat’s engine and wait at a safe distance. That way we can keep whales safe, while still enjoying their presence.

By Luci M.

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