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Chance Encounters - sailors and whales

by Daria Blackwell, Ocean Cruising Club on 6 Feb 2013
Whale strike .. .
Unexpected close encounters with whales can be both heart-warming - or frightening, as the pictures in this article show - and are written about here by Daria Blackwell, of the Ocean Cruising Club, travelling with her husband Alex in their Bowman 57, Aleria:


Most sailors setting off on a passage dream of encountering wildlife at sea. Yet ask blue water sailors about their biggest fears, and near the top of the list is likely to be ‘striking a whale’. It’s one of the events most likely to be catastrophic at sea.


Today, we can usually avoid really bad weather, but can we avoid a sleeping whale at night? And what is the likelihood of a chance encounter with a whale? It may not be as rare (or as common) as one might think, depending on location. The likelihood appears to be increasing as protected whale species increase in numbers, and like many cruisers Alex and I have had a few very happy encounters. Fortunately, several lessons can be applied to reduce the risk and enhance the experience.


Magic at sea – the friendly encounter:
Our first encounter with whales came while crossing Stellwagen Bank, a vast marine sanctuary off Cape Cod. We came upon a pod of northern right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), which started us off with a magical experience that would be difficult to top. We first sighted a mother and calf feeding near tour boats – she was ignoring the humans intruding on her brunch. About an hour later we noted a rock where there should have been deep water. After frantically checking the charts and keeping a close eye through binoculars, we realised it was a whale with callosities, spy hopping and being groomed by a flock of birds.

Then the whale rolled and dived to show off his fluke. Soon afterwards a second whale appeared, much closer, then two more, and five more, until we were surrounded by scores of these leviathans.

As they came closer to get a better look at us with those all-knowing eyes, our first thoughts drifted to the infamous line from Jaws, 'we’re gonna need a bigger boat'. They were about the same length as Aleria. As soon as we realised they were just curious and respectful we ghosted along beside them as we checked each other out. We were under full sail in light winds with no engines running, and worried about them surfacing beneath us after their dives.

We kept a close watch, steered cautiously away from any ahead of us, and avoided coming between mothers and their calves.

Whereas the experience was initially silent, suddenly the air filled with whale song. Not just one but a cacophony of voices, which seemed to be amplified by Aleria’s hull acting like a stethoscope. There were long wails, short burps, moans, groans, and high pitched squeals of varied duration and emphasis. We were taken aback, perplexed. We looked at each other to make sure we were both hearing this. It sounded surreal. Then, we succumbed to the sheer joy of it. We sang back, jumping up and down, cheering and clapping like children. I don’t recall ever having had such a joyous experience in my life. We were speaking whale! All fear was gone, replaced with sheer wonder. It seemed to go on forever.

Then, suddenly, they were gone. The whale song receded and the whales disappeared from view. We mourned their passing but felt blessed to have met them. Alex described the experience as ‘prehistoric, otherworldly’. We had been so dumbfounded that we forgot to take pictures. We have only a few that Alex took as he sighted that first ‘rock’.

Occasional glimpses:
As we left Nova Scotia to cross the Atlantic to Ireland, we were followed out of St Margaret’s Bay by a lone killer whale (Orcinus orca). She swam along peacefully and we wondered if her reputation was deserved. We didn’t see any more whales all the way to Ireland, but we sailed through thick fog followed by six gales. We know now that whales are sighted more often on calm, clear days – if the surface of the sea is smooth, you’ll spot an unusual disturbance more readily.


We were next rewarded with a visit by a pod of pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) while in transit from Tenerife to La Gomera in the Canary Islands. They are known to be resident there, so we kept a close watch. Not much bigger than dolphins but black in colour, the pilot whales swam gently along in company for some time.
During six months of cruising the Caribbean, where whales come to calve, we saw only one, breaching off the west coast of Antigua. From the shape and acrobatics it appeared to be a humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae). In certain islands, the Grenadines for example, fishermen are permitted to take their annual quota of whale meat in the traditional way, and as we passed St Vincent we saw a boat with a bow-mounted harpoon coming in with a cetacean strapped to the side of the hull.

Whales galore:
Crossing the Atlantic from the Caribbean to the Azores, we encountered very light wind conditions. In fact, the Azores high overtook us until we were smack in the middle. It was on this leg that we learned the value of a flat sea for whale sightings and learned just how many of these creatures are en route through the area at any given time. No wonder the Azores were so prominent on the whaling scene. Plentiful food, good weather – what’s not to like?


We had numerous sightings on one day – sperm whales (Physeter catodon) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), mothers with calves, juveniles and elderly, in the distance and REALLY close by. In fact, one pod swam along in our bow wave like dolphins, except they were 60ft long fin whales. They dove underneath and we wondered where they’d come back up. They blew air which carried the scent of bountiful fisheries right beside us and stared at us with those penetrating gazes. It happened to be my birthday – one I will never forget!


In all these encounters, we have never truly felt threatened – concerned about proximity, but not threatened. We rarely use the engine even in very light air, and we always keep a close watch. We are respectful of the distance between us. We are respectful of their environment. We are respectful of their intelligence and their place on this oceanic earth. I think they knew all that.



Collisions between vessels and whales:
The first time I heard about a sailing boat ‘encountering’ a whale mid-ocean was when a yacht, the 49ft sloop Peningo, collided with a whale about 700 miles from the Azores while en route from the US to the America’s Cup Jubilee in England in 2001.

The skipper wrote about their ordeal afterwards, providing insight into the experience. Although the story is entitled Struck by a Whale, from his description of the encounter it is more likely that it was the vessel that struck the whale. The whale was severely injured and the yacht was rendered helpless with serious rudder damage. Luckily for those aboard, the yacht remained afloat with no major water intrusion until a rescue ship arrived to tow them back to Newfoundland. The whale probably didn’t do so well.

The sinking of the Essex:
A most famous encounter is that of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific2 in 1820. Herman Melville’s novel Moby- Dick is based on this true story, told by the few crew who survived. The whale struck the Essex with its head just behind the bow while the light boats were out hunting. ‘The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock,’ recalled Owen Chase, the first mate. The whale had smashed through the bulkhead and water was streaming in. Chase set the crew to work on the pumps and signalled the other boats to return immediately.

The whale, meanwhile, was apparently badly injured and was leaping and twisting in convulsions some distance away. Then suddenly the animal raced toward the ship again, its head high above the water like a battering ram. It stove in the port side of the ship and the Essex sank, leaving the crew thousands of miles from land in three light boats.

In a scientific paper on whale behaviour by Carrier published in 2002, the authors note, ‘Head-butting during aggressive behaviour is common and widespread among cetaceans, suggesting that it may be a basal behaviour for the group. Although data is not available for most species, head-butting has been observed in species in each of the four major cetacean lineages’3. They put forth a hypothesis that the spermaceti organ has evolved in whales as a weapon used in male-to-male aggression and was used as a battering ram capable of sinking the Essex. Even without this, the sperm whale is the largest-toothed animal alive today with some growing to more than 60ft in length and weighing 50 tons.

Whale attack!
During a passage from the Canaries to the Caribbean we heard one of the boats in our SSB net report an attack by a whale. She was a vessel in the 35ft range, heading back to Boston from Europe with two people aboard. While under sail in light wind they sighted several whales, one of which turned towards their boat and rammed it head on. It circled, and came back at them repeatedly. They were terrified that the whale was going to keep battering until they were holed and sunk, then suddenly it swam away.

They had the presence of mind to take photos and were able to identify it as a false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens). The net controller asked what colour their hull was, as a crew member suggested that whales tend to attack boats with red bottoms. Interestingly, they had just had their bottom repainted – and the colour they had chosen was red. Aleria’s bottom is green and her hull is white. (Read previous http://www.sail-world.com/Cruising/international/Capsized-red-hull-easier-to-find---then-why-not?--Heres-why-not/105995!Sail-World_story on the subject of red hulls)

There are multiple reports of yachts colliding with whales, including two in the 1970s when British yachts were lost. Maurice and Maralyn Bailey were on their way from Panama to the Galapagos Islands when, at dawn on 4 March 1973, their 31ft Auralyn was struck by a whale and holed. The Baileys survived for 117 days and drifted 1500 miles on an inflatable liferaft before being rescued. They wrote an account of their ordeal entitled 117 Days Adrift (Staying Alive! in the US).

Dougal Robertson left England in 1971 aboard Lucette, a 43ft wooden schooner, with his wife and four children. On 15 June 1972 Lucette was holed by a pod of killer whales and sank approximately 200 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. The six people on board took to an inflatable liferaft and a solid hull dinghy, which they used as a tow-boat with a jury-rigged sail. They were rescued after 38 days by a fishing trawler.

Daria Blackwell writes for the www.oceancruisingclub.org!Ocean_Cruising_Club, a global cruising club for cruising sailors who have sailed more than 1,000 miles in a boat less than 70ft in length and the article first appeared in the Club magazine, The Flying Fish. Daria and her husband Alex Blackwell are authors of 'Happy Hooking: The Art of Anchoring' available at www.coastalboating.net and now available for Kindle on www.amazon.com.

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