Incidents like the collision Tuesday between a Washington state ferry and a juvenile humpback whale are likely to be repeated because whale migrations and ship traffic in the Salish Sea are both increasing, a veteran scientist predicts.
The young whale was struck as it was surfacing for air about 10 feet in front of the vessel Wenatchee as the ferry left Seattle for Bainbridge Island, said John Calambokidis, of the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective.
The ferry captain and crew didn’t see the swimming mammal, but passengers saw it bleeding after the impact, ferry officials say. A Seattle man standing at Myrtle Edwards Park took photos of the whale just as it was struck.
The strike was probably fatal, according to Calambokidis and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency opened an investigation because the humpback is a federally protected species, NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said.
At least 90% of all whales hit by large vessels die, and most of those sink, said Calambokidis, whose four-decade career as a marine-mammal researcher includes study of ship impacts. When found, the carcasses tend to have drifted away from a ship, or stuck to the ship for miles after impact. So it’s rare the exact circumstance of a whale strike is so well-documented, he said.
After being virtually eradicated from the Salish Sea by Vancouver Island whalers in the early 1900s, humpbacks have rebounded in the Northwest, he said. Last summer, about 200 humpbacks entered the inland waters, mostly near Sekiu in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, while only a half-dozen or so continued to Puget Sound, he said.
Humpbacks’ range on the West Coast range is from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands, NOAA says.
Calambokidis thinks they might swim and feed more often past Sekiu as populations grow.
“While they reflect the good thing about recovery of humpback whales, they also raise concerns about conflicts with human activity, including entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes,” he said. While global warming affects their range, he doesn’t consider it a major factor in their re-emergence here.
The Coast Guard and NOAA unsuccessfully searched for the whale on Tuesday night and have since stopped looking because it’s likely to spotted by recreational, transportation or commercial boaters if it surfaces or beaches, according to Milstein. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which includes research boats, is on alert.
Crew members initially thought the Wenatchee struck a log, but passengers saw the whale at the side of the vessel around 8:30 p.m., according to Washington State Ferries. The Wenatchee was traveling near 15 mph, said ferries spokeswoman Diane Rhodes. This is believed to be the only whale strike by a state ferry in at least three decades, she said. No one on the ferry was injured.
Witnesses described seeing a bleeding whale, which they believed was seriously injured or dying.
“The whale surfaced after being struck and gushing a lot of blood. It surfaced a few more times before sinking,” said Seattle resident Beth Andrus.
From the shore, Matthew McDonald of Seattle said he was carrying his camera at Myrtle Edwards Park when he saw the whale swimming south toward Harbor Island. He captured an image of it directly in front of the ferry at 8:23 p.m., in the middle of Elliott Bay — but convinced himself the visual perspective was tricky, and the whale wasn’t hit.
He saw it surface twice and exhale mist before his last sighting at 8:34 p.m. He learned through news reports that the whale was wounded. “It’s depressing,” he said Wednesday.
Vessel inspectors were notified, but the ferry was still running, Rhodes said. She said that the sun was setting, possibly obscuring the crew’s vision. The whale appeared cut by the bow or propeller, Calambokidis said.
A 2007 study by Northwest scientists recorded 130 stranded whales in Washington state coastal and inland waters from 1980-2006, of which 19 — including fin, gray and one humpback whale — were apparently hit by ships.
Unlike the humpbacks, which populate the whole West Coast, this region’s resident orca whales are endangered, dwindling to 75 southern residents. That’s largely due to a shortage of the chinook salmon on which they feed — aggravated by ship noise that disrupts echolocation by whales on the hunt.
Slower vessel speeds, and no-shipping zones when whales enter prime feeding grounds, are two methods that can protect both orcas and humpbacks, Calambokidi said.
To report a dead, injured or stranded marine mammal, call 866-767-6114.