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Researchers, marine pilots work to prevent vessel strikes from killing Alaska whales

Over the past decade, federal officials have logged 77 incidents of vessels hitting whales in Alaska waters. About three-quarters of those, were endangered humpbacks. But, it’s not clear why those strikes keep happening. A group of federal researchers and marine pilots have teamed up to combine what scientists know about whale behavior with what marine pilots know about ships.

Most of the 3 million who visit Glacier Bay National Park every year never touch dry land. They view the majestic ice sheets from the deck of a cruise ship.

But for those that do make landfall, a visitors center in Bartlett Cove displays a towering skeleton of a humpback whale.

National Park Service scientist Scott Gende explains she didn’t die of natural causes.

“This is the whale that was struck in 2001 that by a cruise ship that was exiting Glacier Bay,” Gende said. “And it kind of served as a catalyst to a lot of the efforts to reduce the probability of collision between ships and whales in the park.”

The whale’s name was Snow. She was a pregnant humpback that park visitors had been photographing since 1975. Princess Cruise Lines ended up paying $750,000 to settle with the federal government.

The reconstructed 45-foot long skeleton of Whale #68 has been on display at the national park’s visitor center at Bartlett Cove since 2014. The humpback had been well-known to park staff and visitors alike as “Snow” before being killed by a Princes Cruise Lines ship in 2001. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/Coast Alaska)

Vessel strikes are relatively rare — but they’re still a threat to endangered humpback whales.

Gende is riding as an observer on Holland America’s Noordam. He’s using a military-grade spotter scope and has a walkie-talkie to talk to the bridge.

“Two killer whales sighted, about 2,000 meters,” he informs the deck officers.

They acknowledge. Then he begins jotting down notes.

“We take a waypoint when we sight a whale and then we write down on the data sheet that has the distance the orientation, the behavior and the relative bearing to the ship,” he explained.

Gende designed this program that’s been logging observations since 2006 on how whales react as these hulking ships close in. But he didn’t realize how his data could translate into real-word advice — until a chance meeting with the people driving the ships.

In Alaska, foreign-flagged ships have to hire pilots to guide them through state waters.

“We do this all the time and it’s not just in Glacier Bay,” Gende recalled members of the Southeast Alaska Pilots Association telling him in 2013. “And, you know, we’d like to work with you and develop some of these ideas because you have a good grip on the science of whale behavior and, but we’re the ones out there operating the ships every day.”

The pilots had questions over federal regulations that require slowing down a ship when whales are sighted within a quarter mile in Glacier Bay. They say they want more flexibility in what course of action to take.

“Just like a deer running out in front of a car, you may or may not have time to react,” marine pilot Larry Vose told CoastAlaska. “And that action that you take has to factor in, do no further harm. Don’t drive head-on into a tree and don’t list a ship so much that you cause damage.”

Gende’s research coupled with the pilots experiences at the helm is getting results. Their research lays out what they’ve learned in Glacier Bay and some ways it could be applied in other places.

That’s important as NOAA has logged 182 whale strikes in U.S. waters over the last decade. But that’s an undercount: ships aren’t legally required to report when they hit whale.

And sometimes they don’t even know it’s happened. The dead whale can sink to the bottom or it decomposes on a remote beach.

Other times it isn’t discreet. Like in 2017 when a Princess Cruise Lines ship sailed into Ketchikan with a dead humpback across its bow.

“Quite frankly I have no idea when we picked the whale up,” Eric Chamberlin, a senior executive for Carnival Corporation’s subsidiaries Holland America and Princess Cruise Lines.

The collision reportedly happened at night. Nobody saw it and it wasn’t discovered until first light. He says, the crew had followed all of their procedures to avoid hitting whales. But he says the cruise industry is eager to improve in any way it can. For two reasons: it’s the right thing to do and it’s good business.

“It is of utmost importance that our use of the area, the resource of the area is sustainable,” Chamberlin said. “Because that’s really what brings the people to our ships.”

Vose says he’s still learning even after decades driving ships in Southeast Alaska. He says he’s never hit a whale – but he’s had some close calls.

“There’s just times when for whatever reason with nothing else going on literally a whale surfaces close aboard,” he said.

This working group of federal researchers and independent marine pilots recently put their findings down on paper. Gende and Vose were among the co-authors of a peer-reviewed article published September 30 in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Gende says eliminating vessel strikes is a long road ahead but he’s happy with what the group has contributed so far.

“If we can understand the nature of ship strikes without actually having ship strikes occur,” Gende said, “then you can formulate management actions, or we can understand avoidance maneuvers without having a bunch of dead whales on the beach.”

On the bow of the Holland America ship, passengers wrapped in parkas on a chilly summer day hoot and holler as a humpback whale sidles up to the ship. This is what they’ve come to Alaska to see.

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