Since man first set sail at sea, tales of oceanic giants have been passed from generation to generation. The legend of the great Sperm whale Moby Dick is an infamous story that everyone has heard of at some point in their life. Yet tales like these are hard to come by in the modern world as whales are more commonly (but not always) killed before they reach such rare and monstrous sizes.
A severed whale head was all that was left of a Sperm whale calf found washed ashore in Tenerife in 1995, its gender unknown. Just like this animal, Moby Dick was once a small calf too but unfortunately for the Tenerife calf, life in the ocean today is just as dangerous, despite the significant reduction in whaling. To reach the 52ft average length of a male Sperm whale is challenging enough but we’ll never know if the Tenerife calf could have grown to the size of mythical legends such as Moby Dick.
Whilst whaling still takes place in some countries such as Norway, Japan and Iceland the majority of the world agreed to an international moratorium set in 1986, which aimed to reduce commercial whaling. Before 1986 the greatest threat to whales were harpoons and if they could be avoided then large whales such as Moby Dick could prosper.
Many whale species were exploited to the brink of extinction and so it could be argued that whales today are in a safer environment since the moratorium. However, it was not a harpoon that killed the Tenerife calf, it was a collision with a ship. Despite the moratorium we have allowed whales to continue to be exploited indirectly by our actions.
Whales living today are threatened with a huge variety of issues such as whaling, micro-plastics, harmful fishing practices, ghost nets (old or broken fishing nets that still catch fish underwater), scarcity of food due to our enormous consumption of fish stocks and ship collisions. Like the Sperm whale calf found on Tenerife, little is known about the effects of whale and ship collisions, as the whales found washed up on beaches are thought to be only a fraction of the total number of whales killed by ships each year.
The western parts of the North Atlantic Ocean is home to a fragile population of around 300 Northern Right whales. They suffered greatly during the whaling years as people often referred to them as the ‘right’ whales to hunt for their large yields of oil and their slow moving lifestyle. Northern Right whales were so heavily persecuted that they are no longer found in the Bay of Biscay and the hunting of them was banned in 1937, around 50 years before the international moratorium. Their populations have struggled to recover and it is thought that in particular ship collisions and commercial fishing are largely to blame.
Between 1970 and 1999, 45 dead Right whales were recorded and accurately documented in the western North Atlantic. 35.5% of the mortalities were caused by ship collisions due to the Right whales slow and coastal routines. Considering that the population of Northern Right whales consists of only about 300 individuals, these figures go to show the extent at which ship collisions can stop whales from recovering and even go as far diminishing such groups of animals. It must not be forgotten, that these recorded fatalities are only a small portion of the number of whales harmed or killed by ship collisions.
89% of whale collisions in which the whale was seriously injured or killed happens at ship speeds of 14 knots or more. It is only in the last couple of decades that technology has allowed ships to carry out these sorts of speeds, which corresponds with the increase in conflict between whales and ships.
The fact that 89% of collisions happen at 14 knots or more, highlights the need for more research into the lives of these creatures to find out where the hotspots for whales are so care can be taken to reduce ship speeds. With improved knowledge of whales and where they spend the majority of their lives, we can avoid or at the very least slow our ships down in feeding and breeding grounds.
A tracking study was carried out on 9 Northern Right whales to get a better understanding of their behaviours and movements. It found that the distribution of the whales conform to areas extensively used by humans for fishing, shipping and recreation. Whilst 3 of the tagged whales left the tagging area and travelled 2,000km or more before returning, all of the tagged whales were located at some point in or near shipping lanes. This just goes to show how whales are being forced to coexist with loud, fast moving ships encroaching upon their feeding grounds.
There is still a vast amount we can learn about the whales on our planet and how they react to our actions in their oceans. There is some evidence that suggests whales are changing the pitch of their calls to each other, in order to be heard over the engines of our ships, which demonstrates how they are desperately trying to adapt to their ever changing environment. Nations around the world need to recognise the significant damage ships can have on whales and must take precautions to reduce impacts.
Speed restrictions are in place in parts of the western North Atlantic Ocean to try to reduce collisions with the critically endangered Northern Right whales. Unfortunately, speed restrictions are not popular with shipping companies and governments, as they slow shipping times down and could cost companies in the long term. All the same if something as simple as slowing down can help to conserve the great whales of our oceans, then we need to lobby our governments to do so and then maybe one day we will again hear spine tingling tales of enormous whales roaming the high seas, just like Moby Dick.
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