Tanker arrives at Cherry Point pushing a whale

Published on Thu, Oct 10, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Tanker arrives at Cherry Point pushing a whale

By Meg Olson

When the oil tanker Overseas New York arrived at the BP Cherry Point Refinery last week, the crew of the tug guiding in the 92,000-ton vessel noticed something unusual. There was a 60-foot whale draped across the ship’s bulbous bow. Somewhere on its trip from Valdez, Alaska to Cherry Point the ship had struck the whale and kept on going.“On a ship like that you probably can’t see it, you can’t feel it when you hit, what can you do?” said BP representative Mike Abendhoff.

“It’s a mystery how the whale got there,” said National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) representative Brian Gorman. “These encounters tend to be chance. Whales usually steer clear.”

Whales have not been steering clear enough, and some environmental groups are worried that certain species, specifically the right whale on the east coast, could be faced with extinction if something isn’t done to keep whales and fast moving cargo and passenger ships apart. “For some mysterious reason, right whales almost always fail to get out of the way of ships. It is possible that acoustic conditions prevent whales from hearing approaching ships, or that whales hear the ships, but have not learned to recognize them as a threat,” said a recent World Wildlife Federation report, which listed ship collisions as the primary threat to the right whales.

In the north Pacific fin whales seem to get the brunt of it. Second in weight and size only to the giant blue whale, it is the fastest of the great whales, capable of bursts of speed over 20 miles an hour. Found in all of the world’s oceans, the baleen whales prefer cooler waters and are more common closer to the poles. They have been listed as an endangered species since 1973 and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimates there are less than 2,000 of them off the west coast of North America.

In 1999 the Galaxy cruise ship arrived in Vancouver from Alaska with a dead fin whale lodged on the bow. Earlier this year there was a flurry of whale deaths after collisions with ships, several of them fin whales, in southern California. In August a 60-foot dead fin whale arrived in the port of Seattle on the bow of a Japanese freighter and a few weeks later a smaller fin whale came into Portland, Oregon on a ship’s bow, said NOAA marine mammal coordinator Brent Norberg. “This past couple of months has been a spike as much as the last 13 years,” he said.

Gorman said there was a possibility open ocean whales, like the fin whale, could be more susceptible to collisions as they cross shipping lanes while whales that stick close to the coast, like grey whales, do so less often. “I really don’t think anyone knows,” he said. Norberg said they needed more information to determine why certain whales seem to wind up in the path of ships. “We don’t know if it’s an issue of not paying attention or not perceiving them as a threat,” he said.

Anil Mathur, representing the Alaska Tanker Company which owns the Overseas New York, said this was the first time in the company’s five-year history one of their ships had struck a whale. However, he said most of his senior staff have experienced a collision with a marine mammal in their maritime careers. “There are whales in the ocean and there are ships in the ocean,” he said. “We don’t know why it happens and we don’t know what we can do differently to prevent it from happening.”

The whale brought into Birch Bay October 2 could be part of solving the mystery. At the request of NOAA, refinery crews anchored the whale off of Point Whitehorn for several days then brought it ashore for a necropsy. Norberg said they are still waiting for the results, which will give a clearer picture of why the whale might have collided with the ship. “All we have now are some very preliminary findings from the initial examination,” Norberg said, adding evidence did suggest the animal was alive at the time of the collission. “We don’t know yet whether the animal was sick or eating something that might have caused different behavior,” he said, adding they were also waiting on final reports from the other two fin whales brought into northwest ports. “It could be the area where they’re hanging out has shifted, putting them in a traffic lane.

A commercial tug company towed the whale 45 miles out into the Pacific off Cape Flattery for disposal on Friday..

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