'Whale below dive boat, this could be you - photo by Barcroft Media'
How scared should you be when boating off shore about a collision with a whale? It goes without saying that there are known seasons that should be avoided at all costs, but what about the number of boats that 'hit an unknown object' and sank quickly?
A scuba diver off the coast of Argentina snapped a series of incredible pictures for Barcroft Media recently of a pair of southern right whales lurking menacingly close beneath a tiny boat of whale watchers. This was published by the Mirror Newpaper and the very proximity of the whale watching boat to the whales raises the question again with Slate's Brian Palmer.
As cruising sailors, as also with whale watching boats, we are required by law to keep 100 metres or yards between the vessel and the whale, but there are occasional accidents.
Whale resting below while baby rests on surface - photo by Barcroft Media - .. .
In Hawaii whale-watching boats strike a few whales per year. The collisions are usually minor and involve no injury to man or beast. Ten years ago, however, the captain of a whale-watching vessel near Hawaii was fiddling with the volume on the public address system when his boat struck a humpback whale. The collision caused a 3-year-old passenger to lose his balance. He was killed when his head struck a guardrail and the deck, and the family later reached a legal settlement with the tour operator.
Collisions between whales and boats occur with some regularity, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
In July 2010 off the coast of South Africa, for instance, a cruising couple received a nasty surprise when they were dismasted by a whale which breached on top of their boat. Palomo Werner and Ralph Mothes were sailing on their yacht Intrepid when the whale, estimated by onlookers to weigh about 40 tonnes, crashed across their yacht, inflicting heavy damage to both the yacht and itself. (In South Africa the minimum distance is 300m)
Whale collides with sailing boat - .. .
In 2012, a 55-foot whale surged out of the water 40 miles west of the Mexican coast and landed on a 50-foot sailboat, sinking it, sadly on the last leg of his round-world voyage. The Coast Guard rescued the boat’s only occupant.
Again in 2012, a solo catamaran sailor suffered a collision with a whale in the Tasman Sea and had to take to his life raft after setting off his EPIRB. He was rescued, but lost his catamaran. His rescuers reported he was more concerned about any damage to the whale than he was about the loss of his boat, which was his only home.
Then there are older reports. 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.
Whale meets diver - what is she thinking? Photo by Barcroft Media - .. .
Authorities suspect that there are many unreported close encounters with whales, because ship captains worry that notifying the Coast Guard may lead to legal liability.
Most whale-boat collisions appear entirely accidental, but a few captains claim to have been deliberately targeted by a bloodthirsty cetacean. During the 19th century, the heydays of the whale-oil trade, sperm whales regularly attacked whaling ships, biting the hulls or whipping the boats with their tails.
The most famous attack involved the whale ship Essex. In 1820, a male sperm whale twice lined up and rammed the boat nearly head-on, striking just off the bow and sinking the vessel while protecting its own head from the sharpest part of the ship.
It’s not entirely clear what motivated the whale to attack, but one theory is that tapping sounds coming from a carpenter’s hammer may have resembled the noises made by rival males guarding territory and female whales.
Fifty years after the Essex went down, whale-ship captains were still worried about the danger of whale collisions. In a landmark 1870 treatise on English shipbuilding, Henry Coleman Folkard lauded the development of the harpoon gun, which allowed captains to keep their ships out of hand-throwing distance of whales.
However, today, the vast majority of cruising sailors report happy experiences when encountering whales in the ocean - of hearing them singing, of having them circle the boat repeatedly, of them sailing along in company for a period of time.
All in all, rather than it being a catastrophic event, if you encounter a whale in an ocean you are more likely to have an experience you will remember - and treasure - for the rest of your life.
Letter from reader, adding information:
Sender: Jay Reese
Message: I have been sailing in the Sea of Cortez for over three years and have had five sightings of whales. Of these five sightings two came very close to disaster.
The first was between Cabo San Lucas and Frailes, when a whale came (without warning) completely out of the water and landed within a few feet of the side of our boat SV Wind Raven. The impact of this huge creature lifted the boat several feet on the starboard side and we almost took a knockdown from it.
I turned to starboard trying to get away from the offending whale and another whale burst through the surface directly off the port bow. I turned back to starboard and managed to leave the area without any more problems.
Other than trying to avoid the whales by steering away from them, I turned off the Interphase forward looking sonar immediately after the second whale burst from the water. It is my opinion that the sounds made by sonar can confuse the whales and cause unfortunate collisions.
The second encounter was about a month ago while on the northern crossing from Guaymas to Santa Rosalia Mexico. I was traveling under sail at between seven and eight knots at sundown, when a sperm whale surfaced about a hundred and fifty feet directly off the bow. I was alert and had been watching for whales, as I knew they were beginning their migration, but it came out of nowhere.
Being under sail, close hauled with the wind off the starboard bow, I had no choice but to steer to port, trying to go behind the whale. As soon as I turned, two more whales surfaced off my port bow. I had no choice, but was forced to turn back to starboard or hit the whales. As I turned back the whales dove and it appeared that I managed ti slide between them. Unfortunately, I felt a slight bump and a huge whales tail breached the surface beside the stern on the starboard side.
When I arrived in Santa Rosalia and went under power I had a strange noise coming from the drive train. I sailed from there to La Paz, where I now am now anchored (dead in the water) trying to determine whether the prop is turning on the shaft, or the damage is to the V-Drive, or both
I welcome any constructive criticism or advice you might have. I do like whales, but only at extreme distances and think whale watchers are bonkers!
by Brian Palmer/Sail-World Cruising
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11:40 PM Fri 20 Dec 2013GMT
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