Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sailboat sinks after encounter with whales

There have been several reports of sailboats being rammed and sunk by whales.  Here's the latest.  These are certainly scary-sounding events, like something out of the novel "Moby Dick." Let's try to figure out what's really going on.

 Sinking near Baja California, October 28, 2009

"U.S. Coast Guard air crews came to the rescue Wednesday of five people drifting in a lifeboat in Mexican waters after the sailboat they had been in capsized and sank several hundred miles south of Point Loma, authorities reported."  "Crew members said it was a whale ramming the boat's rudder -- and not the high winds at sea --that caused the boat to capsize.  The captain of the boat, Eugenie Russell, said, 'They were big ... I would say a good 50 feet ... I remember seeing 7 or 8 of them.'"More.

The whales involved may have been gray whales.  At this time of year, they migrate down the coast from Alaska to lagoons on the west coast of Baja California, where they give birth to their calves.   They arrive in the lagoons mid-December, and stay until April.   During that time, they become a prime tourist attraction.  Guides take 20-foot boats with about ten tourists per boat out to see the whales.

This winter, I had the opportunity to take one of these tours in the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon.  The whales are "friendly" and curious--some of them coming right up to the boat and even touching it.  The guides say they like to scratch their backs on the boats--but on our trip, any whale-to-boat contact, if any, was probably accidental.  But the whales do come so close you can reach out to touch them, and we did.

Friendly gray whale approaches tour boat in a Mexican lagoon.

A gray whale calf raises his head from the water to look at people.

I saw a video posted on YouTube, probably taken during one of these tours, where the video claims the whale was attacking the boat.  This is pure baloney--the video showed only friendly behavior, similar to what I saw from my boat--and, the video did not show any contact with the boat.  So, there's hype around, and you can't believe everything you hear.

From the news story above, we learn the whale "rammed" the rudder.  Rudders are relatively easy to damage.  Since the boat was sailing in strong winds (30 kts), any loss of control could have caused the boat to capsize, and possibly to sink.  So this doesn't sound like a crazed, aggressive attack on the sailboat.   It could have been just an accidental collision.

Probably it was not a case of the boat coming between a mother and her calf, because it was unlikely that gray whales would have calves at this time and at this offshore location.

 Sinking near Hawaii, July 25, 2006

 A sailboat 450 miles north of the island of Hawaii sank after an encounter with a whale.  "The crew of the Mureadrittas XL believe that they were rammed by a female whale, after they had inadvertently got between mother and calf." More.

The whale may have been a humpback whale.  This species breeds around Hawaii, then migrates to the coast of Alaska with their calves for a summer of feeding.

Incident near Santa Barbara, Feb. 2, 2006

 "A large gray whale charged a 27-foot boat on a sightseeing cruise off Santa Barbara, totaling the vessel and sending one of one of its passengers to the hospital. The Bayliner was cruising off Leadbetter Beach Wednesday evening when the whale came up from under its right bow, belly-flopped onto the ship, and crushed its cabin."
"Gormley says the whale emerged from the water again and ran its tail along the boat's flank, knocking over Bob Thornburgh and tearing down the vessel's railing."

"The whale then approached the boat a third time. Gormley estimates the animal as being about 30 feet long."

"Bob Thornburgh was briefly treated for cracked ribs at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. His wife says it seemed like the whale had consciously collided with the boat."

"But Wayne Perryman, a researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service in San Diego, says the boaters probably encountered a gray whale, which are common in waters off southern California this time of year, and rarely show aggressive behavior."  Source.

Beware of inaccurate or exaggerated reporting.  The photo posted with this article was the wrong species--a humpback.  The headline of this article claims "Whale attacks...."   The first line of the report claims "the whale charged...."

There is too little information here to speculate about what might have caused the incident, or even if it was an "attack."  It might have involved a mother protecting her calf, though usually they don't migrate north till a bit later.    Whales do leap out of the water--I saw gray whales breaching off Baja California. 

Given the huge number of auto-deer collisions on US roads each year, you can easily expect some boat-whale collisions along the gray whale's coastal migration route.  If you hit a deer on the highway, is it fair to say you were "attacked" by the deer?   In collisions with whales, the action is underwater--so people jump to conclusions.

Here's a possible scenario other than attack:  A fast approaching speedboat might alarm the whale, which jumps clear of the water to see what's making all the noise.  By the time the whale is falling back, the boat speeds under it.  Next, the damaged boat stops near the whale and looks menacing to the whale.  The whale imagines he has been attacked, and tries to defend himself, explaining the further contact between boat and whale.
Other accounts of collisions or attacks
Whale "attacked" Italian boat in 1922
Whaling ships "stove by whales" in the 1800s

Historical accounts--hunting gray whales in Baja

"These magnificent, highly intelligent creatures were not always so friendly.  In the mid-nineteenth century American whalers discovered the lagoon and mercilessly hunted them to the point of extinction.  The cornered, nursing mothers turned on their tormentors with such violence that the whalers called them 'devilfish.'"  The whales "tried to avoid the boats, but when that was impossible they turned around and attacked, smashing boats, breaking bones and throwing the sailors into the shark-infested waters."Source.

Captain Scammon wrote: "the casualties from coast-whaling are nothing to be compared with the accidents that have been experienced by those engaged in taking the females in the lagoons.  Hardly a day passes but there is upsetting or staving of boats, the crews receiving bruises, cuts, and in many instances, having limbs broken; and repeated accidents have happened in which men have been instantly killed, or received mortal injury."

  • There's a lot of hype about whale "attacks."  Quite likely, many incidents are accidents or have less aggressive interpretations.
  • Because they are large, collisions with whales can result in serious damage.  This adds to the hype.
  • Whale collisions are just one example of many kinds of dangerous accidents involving animals, from flaming squirrels to moose on the highway. 
  • Given the long history of human attacks on whales, and the fact that some of those whales may still be alive, it's amazing that whales aren't more aggressive.  They seem to be highly intelligent, playful, and peaceful creatures.
  • Any talk of aggressive behavior should be balanced with the many accounts of whales helping or even saving humans. 
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There is a remarkable video showing a group of killer whales in the Antarctic teaming up to create a wave to wash a seal off an ice flow.  It shows leadership by one whale, planning, and close coordination.  According to a recent article in Science magazine, different populations of killer whales specialize in different kinds of prey, using different techniques.  If the Terra Nova story is an illustration of the same kind of technique to get seals of floes, then this kind of behavior goes back a hundred years.


  1. Interesting post... thanks for the compilation of whale incidents. It was actually our boat which was sunk in Oct. 2009. Onboard accounts vary, but we believe it was a humpback. The accounts also differ in that some feel the the boat surfed down a wave and hit the whale, and others strongly feel that the whale came at the boat more aggressively. The fact that the damage was to the rudder (not the keel) seems to support the second theory.

    There is a great firsthand account of the incident written by the skipper on our blog (go back to Nov of 2009):

    J World Sailing Blog

    We have had numerous close encounters with whales in our Puerto Vallara base, but needless to say we strive to give them a lot of space these days...

    Wayne Zittel
    J World Sailing School and Club

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