The Business Times

Whale watching gets serious

David Hughes
Published Tue, Sep 13, 2022 · 04:09 PM

COMPANIES running “expedition” cruise ships to the more remote parts of the globe have long appreciated the popularity of whale watching. The thrill of seeing these massive creatures surfacing ensures steady demand for such trips.

Unfortunately, having boats and ships in close proximity to one another is dangerous, for both humans and whales. Tragically, just last Saturday (Sep 10), 5 people were killed when, apparently, a whale surfaced under a small tourist boat and capsized her in waters off New Zealand’s South Island.

However, the danger to whales themselves doesn’t so much stem from people trying to watch them, though the impact of underwater noise and vibration from cruise ships is an issue. Rather, the danger comes from the sheer volume of shipping now using the world’s oceans, and the speed and size of ships.

Some 2 or 3 years ago, while on a cruise, I watched fascinated as 3 large whales made their way in line astern through the Strait of Gibraltar. They were on the northern side of the waterway and probably just in the in-shore traffic zone with ships within the south-west lane coming towards them.

I wondered at the time whether the behaviour was deliberate, in much the same way as we are taught to face oncoming traffic when walking along a road with no pavement. Whether or not these intelligent creatures are trying to adapt to increased human activity, there is no doubt large ships often collide with whales, without anybody on board seeing or noticing anything but with disastrous consequences for the individual whales and, potentially, for the survival of some whale species.


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Recent World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports emphasise increasing shipping traffic worldwide poses a serious threat to whales and dolphins. They call for stronger action from governments and industry to urgently reduce shipping impacts to protect marine life. WWF said shipping has increased by 300 per cent in the past 2 decades, with some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes overlapping directly with important whale habitat. Where ships and whales share the seas, multiple threats have emerged.

“When ships travel quickly through these areas, there is a high risk of collision, injury and death, as whales are often unable to get out of the ship’s path in time,” said Chris Johnson, global lead for WWF’s Whales and Dolphins Initiative.

According to WWF, ship strikes are one of the leading causes of death for several whale populations around the globe, including many that are already threatened or endangered after decades of whaling. Shipping-generated underwater noise is also causing significant harm. Noise produced by shipping is the leading contributor to ocean noise pollution worldwide, with growing evidence that human-made noise is negatively impacting marine life.

“When ship noise is present persistently or continuously and at high levels, it can displace whales and dolphins from important habitat, stop them feeding, temporarily or permanently damage their hearing and interfere with their communication. We need to urgently turn down the volume and talk up the solutions for the health of our oceans,” said Johnson.

Now one major container line has taken a practical step in response, at least to the issue of collisions. Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) said it “has taken a major step to help protect blue whales and other cetaceans living and feeding in the waters off the coast of Sri Lanka by modifying navigation guidance in line with the advice of scientists and other key actors in the maritime sector”.

In mid-2022, MSC voluntarily began rerouting its vessels passing by Sri Lanka, on a new course that is approximately 15 nautical miles to the south of the current traffic separation scheme for commercial shipping. MSC said it is encouraging other shipping lines to take a more southerly route south of the official traffic separation scheme shipping lanes.

The company said it has followed guidance based on research surveys completed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, with the World Trade Institute, Biosphere Foundation, University of Ruhuna (Sri Lanka), Raja and the Whales and University of St Andrews (UK), and additionally endorsed by WWF, to change the routing for its vessels.

World Shipping Council, of which MSC is a member, is lobbying for a new IMO route that is fully separated from the blue whale feeding area. MSC doesn’t mention whether there are significant costs involved in rerouting, but the costs are probably small. When we start closely at reducing underwater noise in sensitive areas, it could be a different story.

The shipping is industry is inevitably finding itself taking more and more measures to reduce its environmental footprint to an extent few of us could have imagined even a decade ago.



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