After reviewing photographs and videos of the incident, there’s little doubt a Washington State Ferries vessel hit a humpback whale near Mukilteo on Monday, causing significant injury and leaving little hope the whale survived, a researcher said Tuesday afternoon.
“Whether the animal was struck by the ferry, that’s no longer in question,” said John Calambokidis, a senior research biologist and one of the founders of Cascadia Research Collective, who has been trying to determine what happened and find the whale since Monday afternoon.
Calambokidis said he was convinced of the evidence after viewing a photograph that appears to show a whale across the bow of the Tokitae ferry, a photograph of an apparent injury to that whale taken just after the incident and a series of photographs showing the same whale — identified by its dorsal fin — the day prior and without those injuries.
The assessment answers questions that have lingered since Monday. Just after noon, witnesses on the whale-watching vessel Saratoga reported seeing two humpback whales near ferries on the Clinton-Mukilteo run.
“All of a sudden one of those whales pops up right next to the bow of the ferry,” said Bart Rulon, a naturalist and photographer who works for the whale-watching company, Puget Sound Express. “We all kind of cringed. Nobody saw any impact, but it was right next to the bow. We were all worried something might have happened.”
The whale, a juvenile humpback, surfaced later, and Rulon photographed the creature with what appears to be a slice along its backside that exposed blubber.
The young whale remained at the surface for a few moments and then disappeared. The whale-watchers were unable to spot it again.
Washington State Ferries on Tuesday evening said it was working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to review photos and videos of the incident, but had not yet come to a conclusion about what had happened.
“We’re still reviewing some of the photos and video from the incident,” said Sharon Gavin, a spokesperson. “We’ll probably know more tomorrow.”
Earlier Tuesday, another spokesperson, Ian Sterling, said the ferry crew of the Tokitae did not see the vessel strike a whale, but added it was “highly possible.”
NOAA spokesperson Michael Milstein said the agency agreed with Calambokidis’ assessment. “It’s clear the whale was struck,” he said.
The whale strike by the Tokitae surfaces in broad view a common problem for the world’s largest mammals: They are often victim in collisions with fast-moving, steel ships whose operators might not realize they’ve struck anything. And evidence of a strike often sinks into the sea never to surface.
In areas of high vessel traffic, “ship strikes are a known major problem for large whale species,” Calambokidis said. “In whales that wash up dead, we often see blunt force trauma.”
Calambokidis, who studies ship strikes, said he estimates that fewer than 10% of all collisions between whales and ships are recorded.
“The vast majority of strikes go undocumented,” Calambokidis said, adding that ferries traveling on the interior waters of the Salish Sea with passengers and observers were more likely to have their strikes counted.
The Tokitae and another ferry vessel knew whales were in the area before the strike, according to Christopher Hanke, the Saratoga’s captain.
Around noon, Hanke spotted the pair of humpback whales about half a mile from the ferry dock. The whales dived before passengers could get a look. That’s when Hanke alerted nearby ferries.
“We called them on the VHF radio,” Hanke said. “They acknowledged what we told them.”
Rulon said most of the Saratoga crew and passengers — some 20 people — went on deck to try to spot the pair.
“I got my camera gear. Pretty much everybody on the boat is outside looking for these whales,” Rulon said.
Hanke said the Tokitae did not change course.
Moments later, the juvenile whale, which Hanke estimates was 30 feet long, surfaced just a few feet in front of the Tokitae.
“That ferry probably never would have seen the whales before it popped up right next to the boat,” Rulon said.
Hanke and Rulon estimate their vessel was about a quarter mile away from the possible collision. Rulon used a camera with a 600mm lens to photograph the whale. Another passenger took a video.
“The one we thought was hit wasn’t swimming,” Hanke said. Instead, the whale stayed in place, while raising and lowering its rostrum at the surface.
“He fell back into the water after a head raise,” Rulon said. “We saw the bigger whale come up several times. We never saw the smaller one come up.”
The visible slice on the juvenile whale would not necessarily be fatal.
“I’ve seen worse external injuries than that that whales have survived from, but to what degree there’s internal trauma from the impact, that’s what can’t be assessed,” Calambokidis said.
Cascadia Research Collective is part of the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which is authorized by NOAA to respond when marine mammals are stranded.
Several vessels with the network searched for the whales Monday afternoon, Calambokidis said. One vessel continued the search Tuesday.
“All the searches yesterday did not find the whale. They found the whale that was with it,” Calambokidis said, adding that there had not been a sighting of the injured whale more than a half-hour after the ship strike “despite many eyes on the water.”
Calambokidis said the pair’s apparent separation was not a promising sign: “We don’t know for sure, but I would say things are not looking good.”
It’s possible the whale won’t resurface if it has been killed.
In his research, Calambokidis attaches tags — suction-cup-like scientific instruments that record measurements and send data — to whales. “What we’ve found is whales are slightly negatively buoyant,” Calambokidis said. “To come back to the surface they have to beat their flukes.”
Dead whales sink, but the decomposition process often fills their bloating bodies with gases and can cause them to float later, if they’re in shallow enough water.
“In the case of a dead whale, the question becomes: How deep of water do they sink in? Does the decomposition and bloating counteract the water pressure?” Calambokidis said. “If it’s deep enough, it would never refloat.”
Whale strikes might be increasingly common because populations of some species have increased.
“We’ve documented a dramatic increase of humpback whale populations over the last 30 years. Humpback whale populations have increased fivefold,” Calambokidis said. “As populations increase, we’ve seen humpback whales expand their habitat. About 10 years ago, we saw a major influx of humpback whales from the outer coast to the interior waters of the Salish Sea.”
Humpback whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Though their populations are rising in number following bans on commercial whaling, NOAA still considers the stock of whales off the California, Oregon and Washington coastline “endangered and depleted.”
In a 2017 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One, researchers including Calambokidis estimated that an average of about 28 humpback whales had been killed each year in ship strikes off the U.S. West Coast from 2006-2016.
Sterling said it’s “very rare” for a Washington ferry to strike a whale.
In 2019, the ferry Wenatchee hit a humpback whale in Elliott Bay. The ferry captain and crew didn’t see the swimming mammal, but passengers saw it bleeding after the impact, ferry officials told The Seattle Times at the time. It was believed to be the only whale strike by a ferry reported in at least three decades.
“Obviously it’s upsetting to the crew when these sorts of things happen,” Sterling said.