Blue whales abound in the shipping lanes just off Sri Lankan coast

By tracking presence and movements of these whales, we can assess whether measures can be taken to move the shipping lane further offshore to reduce the risk of ship strikes to this endangered species.After the first few weeks of our research just off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, we have had more than 40 blue whale sightings.

Whilst at sea in Raja’s boat, it is quite common to find ourselves eyeballing a massive container ship one moment, and seeing the distinctive blow of a blue whale the next.

Before starting our surveys, we knew that the whales and ships were at close quarters, but it was hard to appreciate just how tightly they share their space until you are actually there.

Related: Exciting new research project aims to protect the endangered blue whale from deadly ship collisions

It is, of course, exciting and moving to see these massive creatures. They will blow, surface elegantly, then dive with a sweep of their marvelous flukes.

But it also fills us with concern that their lives are lived in such close proximity to the giant ships, which can hit them without even knowing it or having a chance to alter course.

By tracking presence and movements of these whales, we can assess whether measures can be taken to move the shipping lane further offshore to reduce the risk of ship strikes to this endangered species. The lane presently runs close to the coastline, and about 150 ships pass through it each day.

Our surveys are covering the inshore areas, where the whales and ships currently overlap, as well as the offshore areas. Currently ships do not use these offshore waters, but they could possibly be diverted further offshore if our survey finds that there are few or no whales there.

With all the current sightings in the shipping lanes or closer inshore, so far the unofficial data set is already quite convincing.

The fluke of one of the blue whales sighted by the IFAW research team working in Sri Lanka. c. IFAW

We have seen some terrible photographs of blue whales with major ship strike injuries. Some of these whales die almost immediately, whilst some suffer with life-changing injuries. Since we have been here, however, we have not yet seen such injuries.

Raja’s knowledge of and dedication to the area and its whales make him the ideal partner for this project, and our long survey days at sea are giving us plenty to think about as to how to go about tackling the problem.

Our surveys will continue into April. So far it has been quite windy – unusual for this time of year. This has made our work more challenging, especially in the more exposed areas of our survey block.

We hope for kinder weather and look forward to learning more as we work towards a solution to blue whale ship strikes in this area.

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For more information about IFAW efforts to protect whales and their habitat, visit our campaign page.

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Experts

Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
Country Director, Germany
Isabel McCrea, Regional Director, Oceania
Regional Director, Oceania
IFAW Japan Representative
IFAW Japan Representative
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Whales