Collisions between ships and whales are reported throughout the world’s oceans. For some endangered whale populations, ship strikes are a major threat to survival and recovery. Factors known to affect the incidence and severity of collisions include spatial co-occurrence of ships and whales, hydrodynamic forces around ships, and ship speed. Less understood and likely key to understanding differences in interactions between whales and ships is whale behavior in the presence of ships. In commercial shipping lanes off southern California, we simultaneously recorded blue whale behavior and commercial ship movement. A total of 20 ship passages with 9 individual whales were observed at distances ranging from 60 to 3600 m. We documented a dive response (i.e. shallow dive during surface period) of blue whales in the path of oncoming ships in 55% of the ship passages, but found no evidence for lateral avoidance. Descent rate, duration, and maximum depth of the observed response dives were similar to whale behavior immediately after suction-cup tag deployments. These behavioral data were combined with ship hydrodynamic forces to evaluate the maximum ship speed that would allow a whale time to avoid an oncoming ship. Our analysis suggests that the ability of blue whales to avoid ships is limited to relatively slow descents, with no horizontal movements away from a ship. We posit that this constrained response repertoire would limit their ability to adjust their response behavior to different ship speeds. This is likely a factor in making blue whales, and perhaps other large whales, more vulnerable to ship strikes.
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McKenna, M.F., J. Calambokidis, E.M. Oleson, D.W. Laist, and J.A. Goldbogen. 2015. Simultaneous Tracking of Blue Whales and Large Ships Demonstrates Limited Behavioral Responses for Avoiding Collision. Endangered Species Research 27(3): 219-232. doi: 10.3354/esr00666Download PDF
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