This week saw a humpback whale, thought to be a juvenile, impaled on a Princess Cruises ship: an unanticipated passenger as the ship arrived in Alaska.
The 6-metre long humpback was harpooned by the 290-metre ship, ending up lodged on its submerged bow (a device designed to avoid wave-making).
Shock and sadness have been the general feeling following this, and the cruise ship line was quick to make a statement.
A spokesman for Princess Cruises, Brian O’Connor, said that “It is… unknown, at this time, whether the whale was alive or already deceased before becoming lodged on the bow.” A necropsy – involving a tugboat towing the whale 13km for the procedure location – is planned to determine exactly the cause of death.
O’Connor defended the ship crew, commenting that the ship’s navigators spotted no whales near the ship as it sailed overnight towards its destination of Ketchikan. In fact, Princess Cruises reportedly have a comprehensive whale avoidance program. Ship crews have guidelines on how to operate in the case of spotting a whale, such as altering courses and reducing speed to avoid them.
However, at night or in poor weather conditions whales are difficult to spot even at a closer distance, giving the ship little if any time to attempt to avoid collision.
Following this incident this Wednesday (09/08/17) the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating what happened. This is not the first time such an incident has occurred. In May 2016, an endangered fin whale ended up on the bulbous bow of Holland America’s Zaandam. It is thought that while these cruise boat induced deaths are not common they are equally not uncommon.
Three distinct populations of humpbacks alone are known to swim in Alaskan waters, according to Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. Not only this, these populations are in need of protection. The Western North Pacific population is endangered; the Mexico population is listed as threatened; although the Hawaii population is no longer listed.
Despite the paramount importance of protecting these creatures, there have been regular reports of whale injuries or deaths following collisions with ships: since 1975 there have been 80 confirmed contacts between humpback whales and a vessel around Hawaii alone – and more contacts will inevitably go unreported.
On top of ships’ crews poor ability to spot nearby whales, ships create ‘acoustic disturbance’ for marine animals, which could inhibit whales’ ability to swim away from approaching ships. Since engines run in the base of the ship, with propellers churning, extreme noise pollution is created in the water. This noise can interfere with the ‘sonar’ echo location used by whales and dolphins to navigate and communicate, preventing the animals from sensing approaching ships.
And collision is not the only way that cruise ships threaten marine life.
The cruise ship is the holiday that has grown faster than any other in the past 20 years, but it remains the model of vacation most polluting, with the highest incidence in the total of CO2 production in the entire tourism sector, and most damaging to marine systems.
In the words of a Guardian journalist, “[c]ruise ships view the ocean as their personal garbage bin, disposing hazardous chemicals, sewage, and more right into the oceans.”
Cruise ships can transport 3,000 people, who will generate roughly 30,000 gallons of human waste water on top of producing seven tonnes of rubbish and solid waste daily. Graywater (the water that comes from dirty dishes, showers, baths and sewage lines) can legally be released into the oceans along with untreated sewage. The impact of this on marine life is not only disgusting, it is catastrophic. For example, the diseases introduced from human faeces are absorbed by small marine life such as shellfish and end up in the entire food chain.
The impacts of solid waste like plastic, glass and food waste likewise cause great problems for marine life (and land animals too). In the North Pacific alone, roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic ends up in the digestive systems of fish.
In addition, waste from cruise ships adversely affect the resilience of marine ecosystems, in turn destroying coral reefs.
The impact of what seems like a lovely vacation is enormous – so enormous that it can see the end of 90 tonne endangered animals, among many other damaging effects on marine life.