Photo: A blue whale dives releasing a lovely waterfall. Credit: Michael Fishbach - Photo: 2019

Ship Strikes Killing Whales That Survived the Hunters

Viewpoint by Michael Fishbach and Dr Palitha Kohona

“Like elephants on land, whales in their watery domain, have claimed our attention now for roughly the same reasons. Ancient, large and driven to the edge of extinction by human greed, we must double our efforts to conserve them,” say the authors of this article. Michael Fishbach is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Great Whale Conservancy. Dr Palitha Kohona spent time in Antarctica in the last Antarctic summer.

COLOMBO (IDN) – Although whale numbers around the world appear to be recovering from the carnage that the European and American whalers and sealers inflicted on them, serious concerns remain. Mercilessly hunted for their blubber and other products, the numbers of these gentle giants of the oceans declined precipitately for almost two centuries and extinction threatened. Whales also beach themselves and die for reasons still not fully understood. And today, with the oceans crowded with large ships, ship strikes take their toll on these giants of the deep.

The biggest animal on earth, the blue whale, balaenoptera musculus, was a valuable commodity and a slow moving and easy target. The blubber of whales was a prized item then. Blue whales have a long body and generally slender shape. Their mottled blue-gray color appears light blue under water—hence their name, the blue whale.

The mottling pattern is variable and can be used to identify individuals. A single blue whale could provide about 50 tons of blubber that was used to produce cosmetics, soap, cooking oil and oil for lamps and wax for candles while the skin was converted to fine leather for corsets and umbrellas. 

The blue whale population is estimated to have declined from 350,000 to roughly 7,000-15,000 before whale hunting was banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission established under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, 1946.

The humpback population was reduced by 98 percent during the same period.

Australia banned whaling in 1978.

Sri Lanka, especially before independence, became an indirect accessory to the slaughter of whales as whaling ships called at Sri Lankan ports for water and supplies. An American consulate was established in Galle, Sri Lanka in 1857 mainly to serve the interests of U.S. whalers.

The whalers who went to hunt whales in Antarctica did not stay on this inhospitable but strikingly beautiful continent. They just came to kill the gentle giants. Today Whalers Bay, Deception Island, is littered with huge rusty steel tanks used to store whale oil. Rotting whaling boats bring back memories of Herman Melville’s “great American novel”, Moby Dick – a tale descriptive of a sad chapter in the history of human-whale contact.

Whale bones scattered on this graveyard shore glisten in the bright Antarctic sun evoking memories of a tortured past. So many animals would have been slaughtered on the shores of this silent continent. Once, the discarded innards of whales attracted thousands of sea birds. The belated awakening of the conscience and of the need to conserve nature for our own benefit forced the industrialised nations to put in place measures to protect these species.

Like in many other instances, it was an afterthought and perhaps too late. Once the damage had been done and the conscience pricked, as has happened time and time again in the all-conquering West, whaling nations met and concluded the International Whaling Convention 1946. Today whaling is banned except for scientific purposes.

Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt whales under this exception despite the noisy protests of environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace, Campaign Whale, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Sea Shepherd. Since 1978, it is likely that over 50,000 whales have been killed by these three nations, Norway may have taken 14,344 since 1986. But curiously, it is the Japanese whaling activity that arouses the unmitigated ire of NGOs. Japan appears to have taken over 21,842 since 1986. The total number of whales has increased very slowly since the ban. 

Interestingly, the impressive and large concentration of whales off Sri Lanka may not be of a population that migrates seasonally. Or at least all may not be migrants. 26 species have been spotted in Sri Lankan waters, including the huge blue whales. Whales are found in large numbers, along with their young off Galle and Mirissa along the southern coast, off Kalpitiya along the North Western coast and off Sri Lanka’s magnificent deep water natural habour, Trincomalee.

One could almost guarantee multiple sightings of these animals off Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan population may feed and produce offspring in the same area unlike all other baleen whale populations of the world. Strong upwelling ocean currents off the narrow continental shelf, the furious south west monsoon, and dozens of tropical rivers pouring nutriment rich fresh water in to the ocean, may produce adequate food for small fish to flourish for the whale population to sustain itself. Today, the greatest threat to whales off Sri Lanka’s coast may arise from ship strikes. Ships entering the new Hambanthota harbor traverse whale feeding grounds.


Almost all other baleen whales seem to migrate to tropical waters either from the Antarctic or the Arctic seas to mate and produce offspring.

Whales have somehow avoided bringing direct harm to those humans they encounter. Whales have not been known to harm humans, especially the mammoth blue whales. Often found alone or in small numbers there is no instance ever recorded of a blue whale deliberately killing or severely injuring a human being.

This is quite remarkable considering the immense size of these animals as well as the fairly recent history of humans engaging in a massive slaughter of this species wiping roughly 98%-99% of them off the face of the earth. Countless times per day in numerous places around the globe blue whales are near humans in small boats. Yet there is not one record of a blue whale smashing and destroying as much as a single boat. 

Still after what we humans have done to them, what remains today are “Remnant Island” sub-populations of blue whales scattered here and there across the globe, with each group mostly or totally separate genetically from all the others. The majority of pre-whaling blue whales lived in the Southern Ocean, with the extremely productive Antarctic waters and waters off sub Antarctic islands being the primary feeding grounds for most of them.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctic blue whales occur mainly in relatively high latitude waters south of the “Antarctic Convergence” and close to the ice edge in summer. They generally migrate to middle and low latitudes in the winter, although not all whales migrate each year. Pygmy blue whales are typically distributed north of the Antarctic Convergence and are most abundant in waters off Australia, Madagascar, and New Zealand. An unnamed subspecies of blue whale is found in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, particularly in the Chileans Eco-region, and migrates to lower latitude areas, including the Galapagos Islands and the eastern tropical Pacific.

After long years of fieldwork on blue whales and thousands of approaches to them in small boats, it can be said that they are massive beyond imagination (some reaching over 100 feet in length), mostly mind their own business, usually dive for 7-12 minutes and surface for 4-8 breaths, and when actively feeding at or near the surface waters put on one of the best shows in all the animal kingdom.

It is believed that they live for 70-90 years, give birth to 22-25 foot calves weighing 3-5 tons each about once every 3-5 years, fatten those calves to the tune of 220 pounds each and every day with the world’s richest milk, nurse these calves for about 7 months, feed year round, and most importantly enrich the oceanic waters they inhabit by stimulating oceanic primary production (phytoplankton) with their mineral rich large fecal plumes.

Blue whales are very adept at finding and gorging krill by the millions. Young blue whales can be curious. Adults rarely are. Calves often stray a mile or more away from their mothers who will nurse and feed in the same areas when the opportunity presents itself. They make the loudest sounds in the animal kingdom and communicate with one another over distances that defy belief, likely to be 1000 miles or greater!

The brains of whales, about 9 kg in weight, may be more complex than human brains in certain areas. Observing their behaviour and reading about them, one begins to wonder whether they are much more advanced than we think with our imagination crowded with religious and social indoctrination. 

We watched as a twenty meter humpback whale with a calf spend much time blowing bubbles in a circle, possibly to scare a shoal of krill or small fish in to a tight ball before sucking it up through its mighty jaws. The bubble net activity of humpbacks is not well understood. However, to plan and work out this strategy for hunting purposes may require more brainpower than mere instinct. Then she inquisitively approached our Zodiac to within a couple of metres with its small eye with curious glint firmly focused on the occupants of the boat.

The southern right whale’s testes weigh a mind boggling one ton.

Sadly blue whales have not shown signs of major recovery since the era of whaling ended about a half century ago. The primary reason for this is likely to be their propensity to be struck by transiting ships in their feeding grounds, which in most but not all parts of their range is a seasonal issue. They evolved for millions of years without a predator, being too big and fast for orcas to hunt.

This separates them evolutionarily from almost all the other large whale species. In some of the regions where ship strikes are halting their ability to recover from the era of whaling, geographical constraints (California and Chile) make it almost impossible to move the shipping lanes out of the way for the safety of the whales.

In these regions, if we alter the time of day the majority of ships transit to avoid the night time when sleeping, resting, surface feeding blue whales are most vulnerable, we may be able to greatly minimize the number of ship strikes. In other regions there arresting, surface feeding e no geographical barriers (Sri Lanka, Australia), and the lanes and transiting ships can in theory be moved a bit further from the coasts out of the feeding grounds of the whales. In these regions the blue whale ship strike problem may be more easily reduced or even eliminated.

Photo: A rare site, a blue whale with a large hole through its tail fluke. Credit: Michael Fishbach

Eco Tourism

In Sri Lanka, however, there are major constraints to regulating human activity affecting whales. While moving shipping lanes need to be assessed against the urgent need of the island nation to attract ships, especially to its new port of Hambantota which lies barely 20 miles from the busy east-west shipping route, the needs of cargo shipping must be kept in focus.

Sri Lanka is dependent on its export and import trade and trans-shipment is becoming a major income earner. Adjusting shipping routes need to be examined cautiously. Similarly, a large fleet of fishing boats, providing employment to thousands, operates from a number of harbours along the coast and, given sufficient incentive, a fisherman will become a guide, albeit a poorly informed one, to tourists.

 One sees the cowboy approach of certain fishermen on a regular basis and education and training becomes a high priority. With tourism, becoming a major component of the island’s economy any regulatory measures must of necessity be a compromise between economic demands and conservation.

In order for global shipping lanes or routes to be formally regulated or adjusted the country most concerned must be a member of the International Maritime Organisation based in London and formally request assistance from the Organisation. Sri Lanka is a member of the IMO.

If a shift in the timing of transiting ships or slowing them down is the goal, in order to minimize ship strikes of whales, this then involves the industry and the port, and becomes a safety issue for those whose role it is to ensure that there are no collisions near ports and arrivals and departures occur in a safe manner. All these aspects need to be examined carefully, keeping in mind both conservation and economic imperatives, before a regulatory mechanism is formulated.

Whales, blue whales in particular, are an asset for any nation to have in their coastal waters. They are the biggest animal on earth and this alone makes them a major tourist attraction. Most blue whale populations are migratory, and their direct positive effect on the primary production of the oceans means quite literally that these whales are helping to fight the negative effects of global climate change by enhancing the ocean’s ability to dissolve and sequester large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere.


Whale Watching

The whale watching season in the south of Sri Lanka runs from November to April / May. In the north, the best time is from July to September. During the rest of the year, the waters become too rough due to the Monsoon. The best place to spot whales is in Mirissa, a small town on Sri Lanka’s south coast, popular for surfing and famous for whale watching and also for watching thousands of dolphins. At Kalpitiya, several whale species including, blue whales and minke whales can be seen. In the north east, off Trincomalee Bay, more whales can be seen. An official permit is required to get into the water with the whales.

Whale watching in Sri Lanka could be a success story for Eco-tourism, if the government regulatory procedures along with the tourism industry organize themselves to ensure the safety of whale watchers as well as the whales and to educate tourists of the amazing eco-system that surrounds Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – 31 May 2019]

Photo (top): A blue whale dives releasing a lovely waterfall. Credit: Michael Fishbach

Photo (centre): A rare site, a blue whale with a large hole through its tail fluke. Credit: Michael Fishbach

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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