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Sperm whale killed by fast ferry in the Canary Islands
A sperm whale is killed after a collision with a fast ferry traveling between the Islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife. More collisions between whales and ferries occur in the Canary Islands than anywhere else in the world due to a combination of tourism growth and high densities of cetacean species.
Photo courtesy of Vidal Martin

March 12, 2005
Collision Course - Sperm Whales and Fast Ferries in the Canary Islands
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

The Odyssey crew spent the last days of our fourth research leg surveying the deep waters between Tenerife and Gran Canaria - an area known for collisions between sperm whales resting at the surface and fast ferries transporting tourists between islands.

Collisions between ships and whales are an increasing problem around the globe. Historical records suggest that ship strikes fatal to whales first occurred in the late 1800s as ships rea ched speeds of 13-15 knots, but remained infrequent until about 1950. Between 1950 and 1970, the number and speed of ships increased, as did the number of whale deaths.

As waterways transform into marine super highways for ferry traffic, luxury travel, and cargo delivery, the number of collisions is projected to rise. All sizes and types of vessels can hit whales with the most severe injuries and deaths caused by ships 80 meters or longer, or ships traveling 14 knots or more. Nearly 80,000 ships weighing more than 100 tons travel the world's oceans today - each one easily capable of killing a whale. International shipping is expected to double by 2020.

Most collisions occur in coastal waters with high concentrations of whales and vessels. Whales become more vulnerable in feeding, nursing, calving, and mating grounds where they spend more time on the surface of the sea. In 93% of recorded collisions with whales, ship operators did not see the whales, or did not see them in time to avoid a collision.

Fast Ferry in the Canary Islands
Sperm whales resting at the surface of the sea are at risk of colliding with high-speed ferries. Most boat operators involved in collisions claim they didn't see the whale or saw it too late to avoid it.
Photo - Chris Johnson

Along the east coast of the United States, ship strikes are hindering the recovery of the highly endangered Northern right whale where cargo ships and tankers pass through critical feeding and calving grounds. Two years ago in Alaska's Glacier Bay, a pregnant humpback whale was killed when struck by a cruise ship. Six collisions between ships and Gray whales have occurred off the southern California coast since August 2001. This month in Hawaii, lawmakers cleared the way for an inter-island ferry service to begin in early 2007. Scientists are concerned about the humpback whale population that breeds close to shore. In some areas, one-third to one-half of all fin and sperm whale strandings involve ship strikes. In the Canary Islands, collisions between sperm whales and ships, specifically high speed ferries is one of the greatest known causes of mortality in this species.

Researchers in the Canary Islands have recorded 27 species of resident and migratory cetaceans. This includes, what is thought to be a resident population of several hundred sperm whales. Collisions are well documented and occur most frequently in the busy ferry traffic lanes between the island ports of Gran Canaria (Las Palmas and Agaete) and Tenerife (Santa Cruz). Last week, we conducted research on sperm whales in that area. On one occasion, we tracked a group of eight to ten sperm whales including at least three mother and calf pairs, through the main ferry channel. We spent the entire day with the group that remained in the area when we departed at sunset.

Local researcher, Natacha Aguilar De Soto, a cetacean biologist working for the Marine Sciences Unit at La Laguna University (ULL) on Tenerife discusses the problem of recent collision with sperm whales and other cetaceans in the Canary Islands.

Natacha Aguilar de Soto -

    "What happens here is that there is a high density of whales, there are five species of cetacean that are here all year round. One of them is the sperm whale for example. When the fast ferries started to operate in 1999 there was a big worry they were going to have strikes with many of these species that are resident. Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhhnchus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and Blainville's beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) or with any of the migratory species - particularly the rorquals.

Very soon after the first [fast] ferries started to operate, there were strikes. There have been heads of sperm whales driven ashore, fully sectioned. So, it is true that the Canaries are the area of the world where more collisions with ferries have been recorded and this is probably due to these high densities. Because the transits are short between the islands it is easier for the carcasses to strand, but the problem is it's very difficult to quantify this because not all the animals that are struck, strand because of the currents or the negative buoyancy of the carcasses. And, it is still unknown to what extent it is affecting the population"

Sperm Whale killed by ship collision
This sperm whale was killed by a collision with a ferry and washed ashore north of Lanzorote.
Photo courtesy of Vidal Martin

Genevieve Johnson

The hulls of the newer, high-speed vessels that shuttle tourists between islands cut through the waves and, potentially, through the sperm whales as they surface for approximately ten minutes between deep feeding dives that may last an hour.

Several vessels service these two principal ports every day including four fast ferries providing 25 shuttle services. Anywhere from three to ten vessels strike sperm whales a year. It is important to note that this figure only reflects sighted and stranded animals that can be counted.

When a jetfoil collided with a sperm whale, killing both the whale and a passenger on the ferry, the government and the ferry company funded a study by French researcher, Dr. Michel Andre. Andre proposed a system of buoys set on the sea floor in the ferry channel between Gran Canaria and Tenerife, in order to detect the echolocation clicks produced by sperm whales. However, when sperm whales finish foraging at depth and begin their accent to the surface, they fall silent. Therefore, in the moments they are at the highest risk of collision, they cannot be detected acoustically. The second part of that project proposal was to use a passive system to detect the whales. However, according to Natasha Aguilar De Soto, there are problems with the implementation of this system and so far it has been too difficult to apply effectively.

Aguilar De Soto, feels that until an effective method of acoustic detection can be established in co-ordination with trained observers to sight animals at the surface, there is only one thing that can be done right now to potentially lower the rate of collision in the Canary Islands.

Natacha Aguilar de Soto -

Sperm whale with scars 
from a ship strike - Greece 2004
Collisions between whales and ships occur throughout the world. The Odyssey crew sighted this sperm whale in Greece in August 2004, a lucky survivor of a ship strike. This 40-foot animal has propeller scars down its back almost a foot deep.
Photo - Chris Johnson
    "We are proposing that they go slow in areas of high concentration of cetaceans, where we know there is a higher risk of collision. That does not mean that they can't have a collision. For example, Canaries is a very important migratory route, all the rorquals from the blue whale to the minke whale come through, including other whales that are highly endangered like the right whale comes through Canaries. Of course they cross the channels in the archipelagos and they can have a collision anywhere. But at least in the areas where we know the cetaceans are all year around, and we know there is a high density of them, the ferries should go slower."

Additional References -

  • Collisions between Ships and Whales - Marine Mammal Science: Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 35 - 75 Laist, D.W, Knowlton, Mead, A. R, Collet, A.S, Podesta, M.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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