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Whales and Sails

Although there’s nothing quite like spotting a whale at sea to make a sailor’s day, the relationship between whales and sailors has long been a checkered one, to say the least.

Although there’s nothing quite like spotting a whale at sea to make a sailor’s day, the relationship between whales and sailors has long been a checkered one, to say the least.

For centuries, of course, it was sailors who were the bad guys, as whalers slaughtered countless otherwise harmless animals for their blubber, ambergris and baleen, in the process driving a number of species to the brink of extinction. More recently, however, whales have also become part of the problem, as an increasing number of boats have been damaged or even sunk as a result of collisions on the high seas—collisions in which the whales don’t fare especially well either.

Close Encounters

Some of the first major recorded ship strikes took place during whaling’s golden years in the mid-19th century. The most famous were the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed twice by a sperm whale 2,000 miles off the coast of South America in the Pacific. The loss of the ship and the crew’s subsequent three-month struggle for survival (only eight of the 21-man crew made it home) served as inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Three decades later, another whaling ship, Ann Alexander, was struck by another wounded sperm whale in roughly the same area. Other 19th century ships sunk by whales include Pusie Hall in 1835, Lydia and Two Generals both in 1836, and Pocahontas in 1850. In 1859 the clipper ship Herald of the Morning was struck by a sperm whale off of Cape Horn, but not fatally.

More recently, of course, a number of collisions have taken place between whales and recreational sailboats, some of them close to shore, others off soundings.

In 2012, for example, Max Young’s 50-foot sailboat, Reflections, was sunk by a whale 51 miles off the coast of Mexico and 450 miles south of the U.S. border. It was a peaceful night and Young was nearing the end of a 12-year journey around the globe when a whale lunged out of the water and landed directly on the boat’s stern; the impact damaged the boat’s steering and cracked its hull. Reflections began taking on water, so quickly, in fact, that two hours later Young set off three emergency ACR Artex EPIRBs and shortly after that abandoned ship.

Even more famous was the 40-ton southern right whale that crash-landed directly atop a 33-foot sailboat off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010—an incident that was, incredibly, caught on camera. Many called the image a hoax, but it most definitely wasn’t.

In fact, Paloma Werner, an administrator at the Cape Town Sailing Academy, and her boyfriend, Ralph Mothes, a sailing instructor, were sailing off the southern coast of South Africa near Robben Island during the peak season for whale activity when they spotted a large whale swimming by a few hundred feet away. Soon afterward, they saw the whale again, this time much closer. The couple assumed the whale might possibly try to pass under the boat, but the massive creature leaped out of the water and slammed down right on top of the sailboat, breaking the mast in half and leaving behind some blubber and barnacles before sliding back into the water, seemingly unharmed.

Then, there was the case of the Robertson family and the schooner Lucette, which was sunk by a pod of orcas 200 miles off the Galápagos Islands in 1972. The whales struck the 43-footer 17 months into the family’s voyage around the globe, splitting the hull and causing the ship to sink almost instantly. The six boarded a liferaft and dinghy with only enough rations for 10 days. (The liferaft also began to sink after two weeks at sea.) The family survived by dining on turtle meat and blood while lost at sea for 38 days before a Japanese fishing trawler saw their distress beacon and came to their rescue.

Whale Strikes on the Rise

Between 1975 and 2002, NOAA Fisheries recorded 292 confirmed or possible ship strikes to large whales, and between 2002 and 2006, there were seven right whale deaths due to ship strikes along the U.S. East Coast. This may not sound like a large number, but it is significant given that in 2010 the North Atlantic right whale population, one of the most endangered whale species, was estimated at only 490. It is also assumed the actual number of strikes was substantially higher. Between 2006 and 2010, another 58 whale strikes—28 of them fatal to the whales—were reported in the Gulf of Mexico, off the U.S. East Coast and off eastern Canada. Again, it is assumed these figures miss a number of other collisions that were simply never reported.

Unfortunately, in most cases, collisions result from a combination of poor underwater acoustics and poor timing, with the whales simply finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and unaware of what’s heading their way. Right whales, in particular, are at a high risk of collision because they are slow moving and many of their activities—including nursing, mating and skim-feeding, in which they push through water, often for hours on end, with their mouths wide open feeding on plankton—take place near the water’s surface.

Worse yet, the nature of underwater acoustics is such that it can be hard for whales to locate ships, especially small, relatively quiet sailboats. For example, whales will often inadvertently surface very close to a vessel’s bow because it happens to be the spot where it is hardest for the whale to hear the boat’s engine.

They can also become easily confused as a result of the growing level of background noise in the today’s oceans—from ship traffic, sonar signals, seismic surveys and other sources—which Aaron N. Rice, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University, says makes it hard for whales to tell what’s going on around them (think trying to have a conversation in the middle of a loud party). “In high traffic areas especially, sound is bouncing around the environment and you get a lot of echo and noise propagation,” Rice says. “This makes it difficult to identify one particular sound source among many.”

Finally, there is the acoustic concept known by those in the field as “sound source localization,” which can make it especially difficult for a whale to recognize an oncoming ship. As Rice explains: “If you’re on the side of the street and hear a car you can tell its approaching by its sound. But if it were a constant sound getting louder very slowly, there may not be enough information for you to respond appropriately.” In the case of a ship’s engine and propeller, the sounds are not only relatively constant but typically audible for hours on end from far away. As a result, the whale will grow accustomed to the sound long before it becomes an approaching threat and in the process also become complacent.

Daunting Numbers

Of course, another reason for the increase in whale strikes is the sheer number of vessels of all kinds plying the world’s oceans. Since 1960, the world’s fleet of commercial motor vessels has tripled in size. By 2020, the amount of commercial ship traffic along the Eastern Seaboard is expected to double what it was in 2000.

Similarly, the number of recreational vessels afloat continues to grow, with 12 million recreational vessels (sailboats, power boats, and personal watercraft) registered in the United States. Though this number reflects a slight drop from a peak of 12.94 million boats shortly before the recent recession, that’s still a lot more than the 8.58 million recreational craft in the United States three decades ago.

Worse yet, the world’s fleet isn’t just growing in numbers, the boats themselves have become larger and faster, and as you might guess, the likelihood of a boat hitting and killing a whale increases with its speed. Then again, the last half-century has seen a decline in whaling, which has caused the whale population to rebound as well. According to Michael Moore, Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Marine Mammal Center, southern right whales, for example, are recovering about 7 percent each year. “Despite a few exceptions, like the North Atlantic right whale, the population sizes of large whale species have increased dramatically since humans stopped hunting them,” says Dr. Gregory Silber, coordinator of recovery activities for large whales within NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.

Finally, as if all that wasn’t bad enough, many whales spend much of their lives in precisely those waters that are the most dangerous for them, often frequenting both commercial shipping lanes and recreational hot spots as they make their way from place to place in search of food. Eastern Pacific grey whales, for instance, generally spend April to November foraging off northwest Alaska in the Beaufort and Bering seas, but then head south toward the coast of Baja California for the winter. In doing so, they also cross the paths of over half of the nation’s cargo ship traffic, traveling to and from the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Other whales traveling a similar route include blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales.

Similarly, in the North Atlantic, sailors and North Atlantic right whales follow nearly identical seasonal migration patterns to and from New England and the warmers waters to the south. In the spring, whales travel up along the Atlantic coast toward the waters between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia to feed and mate. Come fall, pregnant female whales migrate south to the warmer waters off the Southeast Atlantic Coast, along Florida and Georgia—a route they share with many a “snowbird” sailor or delivery captain.

In July 2007, in an effort to reduce the amount of overlapping marine traffic, the International Maritime Organization shifted its shipping lanes out of humpback, finback and right whale feeding grounds in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Massachusetts Bay—an area that in recent years has become a massive feeding ground for whales. Moving the shipping lanes just 12 degrees north of their original position was enough to keep ships away from them.

Similarly, in June 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service modified the three-mile-wide lanes that service cargo ships, tugboats and other large vessels in San Francisco Bay, pushing them out of active feeding and migration areas.

In April 2009 the ship strike issue even made its way to the forefront of sailing’s international racing scene when Volvo Ocean Race organizers shifted the course outside Boston away from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and nearby seasonally managed areas to avoid collisions with North Atlantic right whales.

Cetacean Etiquette 

The best way for sailors to keep both whales and their boats safe is to know where the whales are as much as possible. When planning a coastal passage, be aware of areas with high whale activity and avoid them if possible. To find out where the whales are in the North Atlantic, for example, go to the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Website and check out the Interactive North Atlantic Right Whale Sightings Map (

New technology to alert sailors of high-risk areas for whale collisions is also quickly emerging, including apps, like WhaleALERT. The main function of the WhaleALERT app is to warn sailors of conservation measures and regulations in effect in their current location using GPS and AIS. The app, created by the Bioacoustic Research Program at the Cornell Institute of Ornithology, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA, among others, also uses acoustic buoys to collect right whale data in shipping areas near the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Massachusetts Bay.

“This is an effort to have a real-time monitoring approach that would allow us to understand when and where whales are occurring in Massachusetts Bay, and then be able to provide that information to ship captains so they know to reduce their speed. In both the scientific community and the public, it has created a lot of awareness about the presence of right whales,” says Rice. The data collected from the acoustic buoys can also be found at the Bioacoustic Research Program’s right whale listening network (

Currently, the buoys are used exclusively in the Massachusetts Bay area, but Rice says Cornell’s Bioacoustic Research Program will continue to work with NOAA to identify possible future locations for more buoys. “We’d love to have a network of these buoys going up and down the entire coast,” he says.

Rice also stresses the importance of watching for whales at all times, especially in a risky area for strikes. “Being a biologist I always enjoy seeing animals in nature, so I’m always looking out actively anyway, but it's always important to look out to prevent collisions as well.”

In the event you do see a whale at sea, the first thing you should do is slow down to 7 knots or less if you are within 400 yards of it. In fact, since the creation of the Ship Strike Rule of 2008, it is illegal for any ship along the Atlantic coastline larger than 65ft to travel above 10 knots within areas of high right whale activity. The reason for this is quite simple: a whale struck by a vessel traveling at or below 10 knots has an 80 to 90 percent greater chance of survival.

Beyond that, avoid sudden course changes and if the whale is within 300 feet put your engine in neutral, if you’re motoring, and wait for it to pass. Whatever you do, don’t try to get any closer than you already are: not only are you putting yourself, the whale and your boat at risk, it’s illegal to intentionally get too close to a whale at sea (500 yards, for example, for a right whale), unless you are a certified whale watch professional.

Should these measures fail and a collision occurs, report the strike (whether it involves your vessel or one nearby) to the Coast Guard immediately. A report should also be made regarding anything out of the ordinary, like a whale carcass or an abnormally large number of whales in one particular area. The International Whaling Commission also has a database on its website ( where collisions should be reported to aid future prevention measures.

Bottom line: the ocean is a much richer and more rewarding place so long as it remains a hospitable environment to these great whales. Despite their massive size, these animals need all the help they can get.

Essex on the big screen

The sinking of the whale ship Essex has served as an inspiration to storytellers for nearly 200 years. Melville, of course, drew upon it to create his most famous work, Moby Dick. However, the tale of the disaster and 90-day ordeal of the ship’s survivors on the open sea was also common foc’sle fodder throughout the 19th century and featured prominently in the famed, 1,275-foot-long Purrington-Russell whaling panorama of 1848.

More recently, the sinking served as the subject of Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-seller In the Heart of the Sea, which in turn has been adapted into a major motion picture, scheduled for release in theaters across the country in December (after having originally been scheduled for release March 13).

Directed by Ron Howard, of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind fame, the film stars Chris Hemsworth, best known for his role as the title character in Thor, as First Mate Owen Chase, and features lavish special effects and cinematography to recreate the look and feel of an actual whaling voyage. Howard also appears to have pulled out all the stops in dramatizing both the sinking and the crew’s subsequent harrowing open-boat voyage.

As every sailor knows, Hollywood ventures into the sailing world at its own peril—at least as far as we sailors are concerned. The devil is in the details, and as Robert Redford now hopefully knows, the details can be tricky indeed. There’s also no denying that the early trailer seems a little over the top, and includes a portrayal of the sperm whale in question as a ship-killing monster that some might find a little jarring.

Nonetheless, for anyone with a love of ships and sailing, this film will be a must-see.—Adam Cort



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