Whales vs. ships: New mariner’s guide aims to keep at-risk species safe

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Mariner’s guide to reduce whale collisions
WATCH: With ship traffic increasing and more whales migrating to our coast, a collaboration is underway to create a mariner’s guide to help reduce deadly collisions. Linda Aylesworth reports – Feb 15, 2017

The increased number of whales migrating to our waters coupled with the boost in ship traffic is raising the risk for a deadly impact between mammal and metal.

To help reduce the threat to species at risk, marine researchers — working with the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert and other partners from the marine transportation industry — have collaborated on a special mariner’s guide.

The Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada provides crew members with information about where they are most likely going to encounter whales along the coast. The idea being if the large vessel mariners know where they’re likely to run across various whales, they can take action to avoid or reduce the risk of striking them.

Researchers say cetacean-vessel collisions may involve many species in B.C., including fin whales, humpback whales, killer whales and grey whales. Even some of the largest whales on earth — blue and fin whales — rarely have a chance when a fast-moving vessel is bearing down on them.

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WATCH: Orca whales swim dangerously close to Vancouver Harbour boats

Click to play video: 'Orca whales swim dangerously close to Vancouver Harbour boats'
Orca whales swim dangerously close to Vancouver Harbour boats

It’s not uncommon for ships to arrive in harbours with 80-tonne whale carcasses draped over their bulbous bow, Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard from the Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research Centre said. And, he adds, no one knows how many more of the dead whales slip off and sink unnoticed.

“Fin whales are a species that are really vulnerable to being hit by ships,” Barrett-Lennard said.

“We know this in Vancouver. We’ve had a couple of cruise ships come in over the last 10 years with fin whales actually on the bow… that have been struck and collected in that way.”

The BC Cetacean Sighting Network have gathered data on the location of whales  for more than 15 years, information that researchers hope is beneficial in cutting down collisions.

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“A large passenger ship or a large freighter can hit even a massive fin whale and be completely unaware of it,” Barrett-Lennard said.

“These ships dwarf every living thing. We know it’s a problem and the strike risk of whales isn’t going to go away.”

But Barrett-Lennard said the large whales aren’t the only ones at risk of being struck by vessels, even a species as small and agile as a killer whale is vulnerable to being hit.

In December, 18-year-old southern resident orca J34 was found dead near Sechelt with signs of blunt-force trauma to his head and neck. The cause of the death was not disclosed at the time, but there is a chance the whale could have died in a collision with a vessel.

While it is a voluntary program, the guide is already on all B.C. Ferries and B.C. Coast Pilots will be leaving copies on board all the large vessels that navigate into B.C.’s coastal waters.

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