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Whale Strike
Posted: Friday, October 22, 2010 4:19 PM
Joined: 02/05/2008
Posts: 392

Dockwalk magazine's regular column, What Went Wrong by Kelly Sanford, highlights a different marine accident each month, focusing on the lessons learned. We've received feedback that some readers would like to comment on it. So we're republishing it in the forum so you can have your say.

The November 2010 column recounts a story of a whale breaching beside a sailboat and breaking the vessels mast while landing. 





In July 2010, stunning pictures and video from South Africa surfaced in which an (estimated) 40-ton southern right whale breached beside a 33-foot sailboat, landing on top of it and breaking the vessel’s mast.

The couple aboard the boat, Ralph Mothes and Paloma Werner (who are partners at the Cape Town Sailing Academy), posted information on Facebook where they claimed they were observing the whales while under sail when they saw the whale breach 100 meters away, then again suddenly at 10 meters, at which point the collision occurred.


The vessel sustained considerable damage, but the crew miraculously were uninjured and were able to safely return to port following the incident. However, because the vessel was in violation of local laws that require boats to come no closer than 300 meters to the endangered species, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism has launched an investigation, which may culminate in an additional R300,000 fine (just over US$41,000) on top of the repair bill for the boat, or the couple may face up to two years in prison if they are found guilty of harassing the whales.


Later that same month, the Sapphire Princess cruise ship arrived in port in Juneau, Alaska, with a dead humpback whale draped over its bulbous bow – oddly, the second such incident for the very same ship in less than a year. It was as if whales suddenly had spiked as a hazard to navigation.


According to Aleria Jensen, Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, “Incidents of whales breaching and landing on boats are extremely rare. I know of only a few cases where this has happened. Whales have a particularly acute acoustic sensory system, but our oceans have become so noisy that they may have trouble at times distinguishing engine noise in an already busy acoustic environment.”


When asked if a whale’s sense of echolocation is an effective means by which they would be able to detect and avoid boats in close proximity, she explains, “Echolocation is one of the primary sensory tools for odontocetes – toothed whales. Baleen whales [like humpbacks and right whales] do not use echolocation.”


In addition to complying with NOAA’s published recommendations as well as the regional guidelines and laws governing “rules of the road” to avoid an accidental impact with a whale, Jensen says, “We urge mariners to slow their speeds, especially when traveling in areas with high numbers of whales. Collisions at high speed can be injurious or fatal to both humans and the whale. There have been a number of incidents when a collision with a whale occurs where humans are thrown from a boat or knocked against something inside the boat – sometimes fatally. We recommend traveling at speeds less than thirteen to fourteen knots whenever possible.


“We would also urge operators to post lookouts, scanning for whale blows or other signs of their presence. At night, this is obviously difficult. The single greatest thing at night to drive in a whale-safe manner is to slow speed. Better yet, drive only during daylight conditions.”


When invited to post questions for Jensen on, two readers wondered if noises made by the boat, particularly a “singing” or “harmonic sound” produced by the boat, might possibly attract whales.


“Yes, that is a possibility. That is one reason why acoustic ‘deterrents’ haven’t been widely adopted as a management measure.” She described studies done on the U.S. East Coast where right whales were found to be attracted to pinger-style deterrents rather than repelled by them. “As a management agency, NOAA Fisheries is concerned about introducing additional noise into an already noisy environment, which could mean harassment to the animals,” Jensen says.


After completing a necropsy on the whale in Juneau, NOAA Fisheries reported that several events had likely transpired by the time the whale was found on the bow of the Sapphire Princess. Lead veterinarian Dr. Pam Tuomi from the Alaska Sealife Center and NOAA Fisheries veterinarian Dr. Kate Savage agreed that the most likely scenario may have involved three different events. A missing pectoral fin pointed to an initial boat strike in which a propeller likely amputated the flipper, which then caused debilitation and/or death. This may have been followed by killer whale scavenging, as a large portion of the ventral pleats in the lower jaw was missing (an area of the body typically targeted by killer whales). Eventual entrapment by the Sapphire Princess likely followed this when the ship’s bow came in contact with the floating carcass.


“We are still trying to understand why certain vessels may have recurrent incidents…perhaps the shape of a particular bulbous bow makes a collision event more likely to occur,” Jensen says.


Ship strikes present a significant source of whale injuries and deaths worldwide and researchers are challenged to document such incidents, especially when they occur in remote areas. Unfortunately, research suggests that such incidents are on the rise. The easiest way to avoid an accidental collision is to keep a diligent watch, slow your speed and ardently abide by published guidelines for safely sharing a waterway with whales.

Posted: Friday, October 22, 2010 11:21 PM
Joined: 22/10/2010
Posts: 12

Discovery Channel once posted a a story where Killer whales rammed a wooden sail boat and sunk it. It was a survival story about the family who were rescued after 35 days at sea in a life raft by Japanese fishermen. They can be aggressive for reasons we don't yet understand.
Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 8:50 AM
Joined: 01/06/2008
Posts: 1061

Orcas are known for ramming sailboats with red bottom paint, not a great mystery, they represent a wounded food source.

Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 9:12 AM
Joined: 22/10/2010
Posts: 12

Wow.. one would think they are smart enough to tell the difference.
Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 10:05 AM
Joined: 01/06/2008
Posts: 1061

Nope, they aren't that bright.

Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 12:03 PM
Joined: 22/07/2009
Posts: 97

First time I saw one it really scared me a lot! The geyser mix of air and water that sudenly blows out of the water! Next to the 15 m boat with 12 charter guests, first time for them also, she was bigger in a 7m distance. I thought: hummmm....  if this animal gets angry she will sunk us in a minute...... She left in peace after a few splashes!!


Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 3:00 PM
Joined: 18/11/2008
Posts: 66

its not real

Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 3:40 PM
Joined: 14/01/2009
Posts: 1024

You may be correct..I didnt believe that story. I do believe whale strikes with yachts happen. Ive hit whales so hard with a sailing yacht, in broad daylight, that the wake turned colour from blood and excrement, with leeward lifelines torn free from the whales tail swipe. Dont know how to avoid them. Do remember that whales recover from deep feeding , diving in a stationary surface position . Also dont try to cross between a sighted whale and its calf or you may initiate a response. A sharp lookout and education on whale migration patterns and behavior seems your only defense.
Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 5:48 PM
Joined: 02/05/2008
Posts: 40

I thought the photos looked far fetched as well and initially dismissed them as a hoax. I looked for a credible source which confirmed the images were a hoax, however was suprised to find that all credible sources indicate the video and photos are real. Even my contact at NOAA did not dispute the images. It also seems unlikely that the Department of Environmental Affairs would launch a formal investigation without first confirming that the photos were real. However, if you have access to credible information which says otherwise, then please post it here. It has been many weeks since I wrote the article. Maybe there is new information, but I just ran a quick search and could not find it.
Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 11:37 PM
Joined: 22/05/2008
Posts: 1

We experienced a "whale jump" between our yacht and the tender while on charter last year off Nantucket.. almost sank the tender! lol if i could post photo here I would.. took it w my Blackberry and it totally LOOKS fake but I assure you, as well as our charter guests will attest, it IS real! lol
Kate Lardy
Posted: Monday, October 25, 2010 2:36 PM
Joined: 24/07/2008
Posts: 22

Here's Dhardra's photo from the above post. (Thanks Dhardra!)

Posted: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 2:31 AM
Joined: 17/06/2010
Posts: 5

Call me Ishmael...
Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 3:13 AM
Joined: 02/04/2010
Posts: 19

As unbelievable as it may sound, I, on a 38 ft. sailing yacht together with 5 other guys (3 of whom were sleeping down below at that time) have had a very similar experience...on roughly the same spot, towards  the end of October 2009. It was around midnight and we were coming from Gaansbaai on our way up to Hout Bay, visibility was excellent, wind had slacked down as soon as we doubled the Cape and so we were at that point chatting along while considering whether or not to start had been one long and miserable day of beating and the thought of getting to sleep at home after a week of hiding in Gaansbaai waiting for a storm to play out was enough to make us drool.
We were talking crap about the wind when suddenly a noise was heard by all the three of us, we shut up, "Hey have you heard that?", "Yeah, what was it?", look around, there was not a thing nor a light in sight. Look around a bit more, we see a big round fluorescent spot in the water, of i guess about 5 meters' diameter at about 30 meters away dead on starboard beam....."Look! Maybe it was a whale!", "...a whale?"...
Not sooner had the word "Whale" been pronunced than this enormous thing pops out of the water on our starboard quarter and splashes back into the water right behind the stern in the boat's wake, at less than the boat's lenght away.
The sound it produced is something I would describe like a bomb with a sound suppressor on (provided such a thing existed, lol!), and not a drop of water from the splash reached us, that we noticed at that moment.
The part of the damn thing that popped out of the water as it was breaching was easily as big as the whole boat we were on, perhaps a bit shorter but also thicker.
Needless to say, jaws dropped and the time seemed to slow down while we realized what had just happened in front of our eyes.
"Did you see that?"..."Get tha f&%k out of here quick!".
...and that was the story.
Now honestly, I have never entertained the thought that the big dumbo there meant to f&%k us up nor that it meant anything at all for that probably was mindlessly and carelessly breaching on its own like they always do and only by chance happened to almost land upon us.
The thing that shocked me the most of the whole experience is the thought that out of all he miles we tacked along on that day this collision was missed by a mere four or five meters and that had the stupid thing landed on the boat we all would probably have ended up playing shark food on the bottom of the Cape where God knows how many others did before us.

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 4:12 AM
That photo is soooo FAKE !!
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