A poorly understood and under-reported threat

Author // James Robbins Categories // Whale & Dolphin General News

A poorly understood and under-reported threat

Sadly, large whales are hit by ships (‘ship strike’) globally, but this threat is poorly understood and under-reported. 

Last Saturday, a ferry which travels between Palma de Mallorca and Valencia in Spain hit a sperm whale and carried the animal into the dock of the Valencia port on its bow. The animal, which was six metres long and weighed between six and seven tonnes, was caught on the bow of the ferry and sank in the harbour as the ferry moored. On Tuesday, the sperm whale was removed from the water and organisations including the Valencian Institute of the Varamiento of Cetaceans have taken samples to study further.

Sadly, large whales are hit by ships (‘ship strike’) globally, but this threat is poorly understood and under-reported. Vessels can injure or kill whales and dolphins and are a particular threat to larger whales in busy shipping areas. Since 2011 ORCA have been working to mitigate this threat and provide solutions for ships crews and policy makers to stop whales being hit in the Bay of Biscay and beyond.

In 2017 an innovative project was piloted by Ruth Coxon, a student from Nottingham Trent University in partnership with ORCA and Brittany Ferries, which investigated the occurrence of fin whales close to large vessels and recorded the behaviour of the animals. ORCA has continued the work and an improved methodology was trialled in 2018 which used high definition video cameras to garner a better idea of how whales react around large vessels. This innovative research is now conducted throughout the season when whales are present in our neighbouring waters. 

Our research into the occurrence of ship strikes will also be the focus of a PhD studentship recently awarded by Portsmouth University. Our Science Officer, James Robbins, has been leading ship strike research for ORCA for a year and a half, and was selected as the successful candidate for the PhD. Supervised by Dr Sarah Marley (Portsmouth University), Professor Alex Ford (Portsmouth University), and Lucy Babey (ORCA), James will be spending three years progressing knowledge about the occurrence of ship strikes, the behavioural impacts of near-misses, areas of risk, and potential mitigation measures. Historically, ORCA have been supported by researchers at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and St Andrews University throughout the ship strike research project, and they will continue to be involved during the PhD.

We hope that through this research we will be able to support bridge crews and inform policy decisions on how to reduce the number of whales killed and injured by ships around the world.