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  • Writer's pictureNimara Asbah, Backer Kobaissi, Leila Gillespie-Cloutier

Mapping out interest in saving whales

Updated: Mar 6

At Whale Seeker we believe in supporting the next generation's thought leaders. Through the Alan Shepard Residency Program, by District 3 Innovation, we allowed a group of multi-disciplinary students to take over our blog, this post is the result of that supervised collaboration. Happy reading!

Word cloud generated from Google News query: “Whale Strikes”. Collected from news headlines and summaries of 100 articles

Whale strikes are underreported in the media and in official governmental figures. Local news outlets mention whale strikes—for instance, more than 80 whales were struck off the western US coast in 2017; however, marine ecologists believe the real number of whale strikes could be higher than the numbers recorded. Across North America, various conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity been trying to raise awareness on this issue.

Understanding the true magnitude and implications of whale strikes is important to provide effective solutions. Scientists have been voicing their concerns, yet there isn't enough media coverage on whale strikes. Some solutions like establishing speed limits or creating dynamic shipping lanes have been shown to be effective. Unfortunately, strikes are still happening and this is a problem worth addressing because whales play a crucial role in balancing the oceanic ecosystem.

Why are whale strikes underreported?

Ship strikes are underreported for several reasons:

Ships don’t realize they have hit a whale since the difference in weight is so big. Cargo ships can weigh upwards of 150 000 tons without counting the cargo and a whale such as a grey whale weighs roughly 41 tons. This is comparable to a pickup truck that weighs 2500 kg running over a 0.68 kg squirrel!

There is no current system to actively detect whale strikes. It is not possible to track every whale in the world so we rely on human reporting.

Whales are negatively buoyant; they sink after dying. The true number of deceased whales from human causes is unknown as they do not all wash up on the beach after passing away.

Necropsies performed on beached whales can be inconclusive about whether a ship strike was the cause of death because the decomposition of the carcass may be too advanced.

Reporting a whale strike is poorly enforced: spotting a whale should always be reported to marine mammalian emergencies, however, when whales are spotted and reported, there is no incentive to report a collision and a penalty is rarely imposed on offenders.

Why do whale strikes occur?

There are four main reasons why whale strikes occur:

1. Ship lanes—the highways for ships—coincide with whale migration routes and feeding grounds. Oftentimes, these strikes occur off the coast of California and British Columbia as well as in the Gulf of St Lawrence and off the eastern US coast, where the most important seaports in North America are located.

2. Whales are not easily spotted by sailors or captains or mariners. Sailors look out for blows, fins, or flukes, which can be difficult to see and even harder to notice in bad weather or in low light conditions. Even if captains spot a whale, there might not be enough time to avoid or slow down enough to prevent a collision since these massive ships drift over long distances and take time to change their trajectory.  

3. Whales can’t hear the ships due to the bow null effect and acoustic pollution. The long bow of the cargo ship causes a “shadow zone” in front of the boat which masks the noise made by the engine.

4. Whales can be distracted when they are focusing on caring for their calf, navigating migration routes, socializing, or feeding. Whales feed primarily on krill, which do not like UV light and therefore reside in deeper waters during daytime. Whales dive deep to find the krill and only come up for air. In the nighttime, however, krill move toward the surface, which leads whales to the surface as well and increases their chance of crossing paths with ships in the dark.

What measures are we currently taking to avoid whale strikes? Are these measures effective?

Speed restriction measures are implemented, but only in certain areas. For example, the eastern US coast has mandatory speed limits, while other ship lanes have voluntary speed limits. However, many ships fail to follow the rules and don’t voluntarily reduce their speeds.

Some governments issue fines, which can range from $6,000 to $12,000 for ships that break the rules. However, fines are not often distributed as it is difficult to catch and penalize offenders.

Local fishing zones can be closed when a whale is spotted, which can be costly and frustrating for fishermen. This measure might not always be effective because the whale can leave the zone and the zone will stay closed for the remainder of the 15 days.

Minimum distances from whales — the most effective solutions are ones that strive to help ships avoid getting within 400 meters of whales and endangered species.


Oftentimes, we only know about a whale strike after the whale is found on the shore with injuries indicating a vessel strike. It can be very challenging for ships to spot whales and avoid hitting whales in their routes. Even if whales are well spotted, slowing down and changing routes is sometimes impossible. In the past years, efforts have been made to protect whales through regulation and legislation and by asking the governments to implement new regulations such as vessel speed limits and fines; however, these efforts have made very little impact. These regulations mainly focus on avoiding an area frequented by whales, although there needs to be a shift towards active whale detection techniques so they can be avoided in a crucial moment.‍


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