Cruising Life, Fears and Worries, Lessons Learned

Chance encounters between ships and whales - Part 2

This is the second half of a 2-part article by Daria Blackwell,
first published in the Ocean Cruising Club publication Flying Fish.
You can read part 1 here.

Photo: James Dagmore

Bizarre whale tales

Who can forget the photos of the 40 ton southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) that breached onto a 33ft sloop in South Africa in 2010, breaking the mast before sliding into the water with an ‘eerie groan’? Amazingly, Ralph Mothes and Paloma Werner were not injured and returned to harbour on their own, and a nearby vessel managed to record the whole incident on video.

YouTube video: Whale Crashes on Boat – Published by CBSNewsOnline.

It seems this was simply a case of being in the wrong place when a whale came up for air.

There are several additional videos on YouTube that show whales ramming boats or breaching onto them. So it does happen.

In 2011, a breaching humpback whale off southwest Washington smashed the mast and rigging of a 38ft yacht taking part in the Oregon Offshore International Yacht Race to Victoria, BC ‘leaving bits of blubber behind’, as Ryan Barnes told the Coast Guard. Ironically, the boat was called L’Orca. Her crew were in the cockpit and were not injured during the encounter.

YouTube video: Oregon Offshore 2011- Whale vs. Boat!

YouTube video: Sailboat struck by breaching whale near Astoria

In June 2012, Max Young of Sacramento, California, on the last leg of a circumnavigation, had to be rescued after a breaching whale struck his 50ft yacht 40 miles off the coast of Mexico just after dark. He was only about ten feet from the 55ft whale as it jumped about twelve feet in the air and came down on the bow of boat, lifting the stern clear of the water. The collision disabled the steering system and holed the boat, but he used a mattress to plug a hole, and four bilge pumps to bail water, while waiting to be rescued 5.

CruisersForum – – has a report of a man who left harbour in his new 27ft Bayliner just before sunset with two friends. They were off Santa Barbara Point ‘when a 30ft grey whale suddenly breached and landed on top of the boat. The weight of the whale crushed the cabin before it rolled off the boat back into the water… the beast came around and took another run at the Bayliner and slammed the boat with its tail’. This damaged the boat’s rail and broke one of the owner’s ribs, cut his hand, and embedded barnacles in his back. The whale made a third run at the boat, but just rolled one of its eyes out of the water and stared at them.

Then there’s the truly bizarre story from Australia of a humpback whale that grabbed a yacht’s anchor rode and swam off, towing the boat 1½ miles out to sea at night. It was joined by a second whale that helped along the way. The woman onboard managed to get a video of the encounter before they cut away the rode. The couple had called the Coast Guard and others for assistance but were not taken seriously.

Published studies of collisions

In 2001, researchers from the US and Europe conducted the first survey of reports of collisions between ships and whales (See Laist, DW, et al, Collisions between ships and whales. MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE, 17(1): 35-75 (January 2001).)

They focused on motorised vessels, as collision reports first started appearing in the 1800s with the advent of steam power. They found that collisions increased as vessel speed increased.

A humpback whale lands in the water after breaching near Auke Bay, Alaska.
Photo Aleria Jensen, Public domain NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC. NOAA Photo Library anim1037

Of eleven species known to be hit by ships, they reported that fin whales are struck most frequently and right whales, humpback whales, sperm whales and grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are hit commonly. The most lethal or severe injuries are caused by ships travelling at 14 knots or more, which eliminates many cruising yachts. Today, collisions occur most often with high speed ferries and racing yachts.

Since then other reports have been filed, including the 2009 report of an ExxonMobile tanker returning to port with a humpback whale draped over its bulbous bow. In Alaska, in 2010, an adult female humpback was found on the bow of a cruise ship owned by Princess Cruises – the third whale incident involving the company since 2001. Bizarrely, this same ship had had a similar encounter with a fin whale the year before outside Vancouver. Speed and visibility were considered factors in these events.

In 2011 Fabian Ritter, collaborating with, published a study which constitutes the first attempt to quantitatively assess collisions involving sailing vessels and whales on a global scale (Fabian Ritter. Collisions and near miss events between sailing vessels and cetaceans – MEER eV, Bundesallee 123, 12161 Berlin, Germany.)

A total of 108 collisions and 57 ‘near misses’ were identified between 1966 and 2010, the majority of which (75%) were reported between 2002 and 2010. He concluded that elevated vessel speed contributes to a higher risk of collisions, although it doesn’t correlate with likelihood of damage or injuries where other factors can prevail.

Ritter recommended three courses of action to protect ships and whales:

  1. speed reduction,
  2. dedicated observers, and
  3. the shift of routes.

He also recommended publicising the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Ship Strike Data Base and encouraging sailors to report their encounters so the data can be collected and analysed.

Locations of collisions and near miss events between sailing vessels and cetaceans (1966-2010)

 Location Collision  Collision
 Near miss
 Total %
 North Atlantic Ocean  43  26  69  41.8 %
 Caribbean Sea  5  3  8  4.8 %
 South Atlantic Ocean  12  3  15  9.1 %
 North Pacific Ocean  14  12  26  15.8 %
 South Pacific Ocean  21  6  27  16.4 %
 Northern Indian Ocean  1  2  3  1.8 %
 Southern Indian Ocean  4  1  5  3.0 %
 Mediterranean Sea  3  2  5  3.0 %
 Baltic Sea  1  0  1  0.6 %
 Other  4  2  6  3.6 %

Reproduced with permission

In other studies, sound has been used to try to deter whales from crossing paths with boats. In one, it was documented that harmonics may actually attract rather than deter whales. So running your engine may not be a good way to ward them off.

In the Oyster magazine, Pantaenius Insurance reported research they carried out following the loss of a Formula 40 catamaran after it hit a dormant whale in 1991.

The advice their experts offered was for yachts to keep their depth sounders on during ocean passages, as a whale can hear the pulse emitted by the transducer.

What can you do?

Minimising risk of collision with whales is a goal of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). They are planning detailed guidance for all segments of the maritime industry, including cruising and racing yachts. In advance of the guidance, the Belgian Department of the Environment has released an information leaflet which includes advice about how to reduce the risk of collisions with whales and provides a link to the ship strikes database developed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Their advice includes the following points:

  • Plan passages to avoid high density areas
  • Keep a close watch, reduce speed, and alter course for direct avoidance
  • Report incidents to help improve knowledge
  • Heed restrictions and seek advice from the IMO and national authorities
  • Contribute to scientific research by reporting sightings and encounters

The IWC database contains 1076 collisions reported between 1877 and 2010. It includes the type of whale and the location of collision, though the IWC is quick to note that these reports are, for the most part, uncorroborated.

A humpback whale breaching near the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Wanetta Ayers. Released into the public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The majority of whale fatalities occur off the East Coast of North America and in the Mediterranean. This is hardly surprising, as that is where shipping is most congested and where whales migrate. A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), however, has shown that whale populations are on the increase in California waters, adding to the risk of encounters. Multiple species of whale feed along the coast, including killer, grey, humpbacks and blue (Balaenoptera musculus – the world’s largest animal). NOAA has issued advisories to shipping to reduce speed along the migration paths.

What happens to the vessels involved in collisions with whales seems, in comparison, mild. Few ships have been reported holed, disabled or sunk. It has happened, but it seems – at least from our experience – that the benefits to cruising sailors of being out there outweigh the risks of collision – at least with whales.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Herman Melville

About Daria Blackwell

Photo provided by Daria Blackwell

Daria Blackwell is a USCG licensed Captain. She and her husband Alex, and cruising kitty Onyx, have crossed the Atlantic three times in three years aboard their Bowman 57 ketch Aleria, spending years cruising the Caribbean and Atlantic islands as well as the American and European coasts. They are now in Ireland planning their next adventure.

Daria is a proud member of the Ocean Cruising Club Committee, Seven Seas Cruising Association (cruising station for Ireland), American Yacht Club and Mayo Sailing Club.

The Blackwells are co-authors of Happy Hooking – The Art of Anchoringwhich has received excellent reviews in the sailing press. They periodically conduct their Happy Hooking webinar for Seven Seas University.

Their website is, “the boaters’ resource for places to go and things to know”.

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