The headlines that accompanied the recent death of Tokitae, an orca held captive for more than 50 years, were a powerful reminder of how one cetacean’s tragedy can move millions of people. Yet an estimated 20,000 whales are killed every year, and many more injured, after being struck by ships—and few people even realize that it’s happening.
Calling attention to the terrible toll of ship strikes on whales is the mission of filmmaker Philip Hamilton, whose new documentary, Collision, explores why they happen and what can be done about it.
We have a fourfold expansion in maritime traffic, at greater speeds.
Hamilton depicts an ocean fast becoming industrialized, its great expanse turned into a network of shipping lanes traveled by boats that are bigger, faster, and more numerous than ever before. Whales, so majestic and intelligent and important, are as vulnerable as deer on a highway—yet there is reason for hope, too. Simply by changing their routes, ship operators can avoid much of the carnage. And when companies won’t budge, public pressure can make them.
Nautilus talked to Hamilton about the problem.
When did ship strikes become so important to you?
I was made aware back in 2018, when I was working on our first documentary, Ocean Souls—but if you watch Ocean Souls, you will not hear much about collisions. I did that on purpose. I realized the magnitude of the problem and said to myself, this deserves a completely new film.
What is the magnitude?
No one has an exact number. Scientists will tell you that only up to 5 percent of whales who die after colliding with a ship will wash ashore. On top of that, you need to run proper necropsies to scientifically say they were killed by a ship. If the whale’s body is in a place that’s difficult to access, or the veterinarian is busy, or you don’t have a boat, then no one will ever do a necropsy and it won’t count statistically as a collision.
The reality is that out of the 5 percent that might make it to shore, we’re reaching maybe 1 percent. We’re talking about thousands of large whales—and besides the humpback whale, who have recovered to pre-hunting levels, and the southern right whale, all the other large whales are either critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable.
So we’re not only losing thousands of large whales, but they are all at very low numbers. The magnitude of the problem is simply gigantic.
WHALE OF A TALE: When he was making his first film, Philip Hamilton learned about the tremendous problem of whale-ship collisions, but he knew it needed its own dedicated film. Collision is available for streaming on Prime Video, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, and Vimeo.
Why is this such an issue now? Why were collisions not as big a problem 50 or 100 years ago?
Maritime traffic has expanded fourfold in the last 20 years. With all the new technology, ships are going much faster—and I’m talking about everything. Not only the big merchant shipping vessels, but also the cruise ships, the large sport boats, large sailing boats, even jet skis and normal sport boats. All of them can injure a large animal.
What are some of the solutions to the problem—and the challenges to implementing them?
We do have low-hanging fruit: locations where ships deviating from existing paths, or slowing down, is not a major impediment for the business model of those shipping companies. Those zones are well-mapped and well-understood by scientists. Where there is an overlap of nursing grounds or feeding grounds with traffic that could deviate easily or slow down easily, it’s not a problem.
One example is the busiest shipping route on the planet, which is south of Sri Lanka. It has all the traffic that goes from Asia through the Suez Canal and then to Europe. That lane was established by Sri Lanka without the support of scientists; the government wanted it very close to the continental shelf, where there’s an upwelling of nutrients. Whales and fishermen gather around that area.
Now we understand the problem; there is no excuse.
Why did the government of Sri Lanka want the route to pass so close, just 5 nautical miles from shore? They thought it would be convenient to have the lane there in case those ships want to stop in their ports to refuel or do repairs. But the reality is that those boats don’t need to stop there, and they’re not.
In May, the World Shipping Council presented a new route. The entire shipping community agreed that it was safe and good to move 15 nautical miles south, into deeper waters, where there’s no nutrient upwelling and no whales and whale watchers and fishermen. It would mean maybe one hour of deviation in a trip of two or three weeks. For them, that extra time was totally irrelevant. But the Sri Lankan government was opposed.
Today, 50 percent of that traffic has voluntarily moved out of those shipping lanes and into deeper waters. Although we didn’t achieve the official movement of the shipping lanes, the companies realized that was a low-hanging fruit. No risk, no economic impact, no nothing. There are places where the shipping community and the maritime traffic community can make changes without costing much—and those changes alone will save thousands of whales every year.
And the high-hanging fruit?
Those places where the economic model is based on speed and straight lines and lots of traffic, are going to be difficult to change.
Take the Canary Islands, where the fast ferry business model is built on speed and going in a straight line. If you tell them to slow down, then what’s the point of spending millions on a boat that goes up to 35 knots when they’ll only go 20? It’s like having a Formula One car and being told to race at 70 miles per hour. Slowing down or deviating course goes against their business model.
For those areas, we need government intervention and legislation. But now we understand the problem; there is no excuse. If a government—the Canary Islands, or Spain, or Europe—wants to keep killing whales, they can keep willing whales, but now they’re informed. They know.
Another example is Patagonia, where the salmon farming ships travel at full speed, day and night, between the salmon pens and the ports. We know that at night they’ll kill more whales, because the whales are closer to the surface, but they won’t stop. For them the economic model is based on that many transits at that speed.
Those are going to be the challenges going forward: areas where economic interests would be impacted if they want to save whales. Luckily there are plenty of places we can save whales with no economic impact or opposition. It’s just about informing people.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who is a scientist in Catalonia started researching fin whales. They’re an endangered species, the second-largest whale species after blue whales. The fin whale population was thought to enter the Mediterranean, go to the Ligurian coast in Italy, and then come back and leave. We figured out that the animals are there for three months to feed.
We already spoke with shipping companies. Rather than travel next to the coast for those three months they can travel in parallel, 10 nautical miles out, and then enter the port in a straight line. That costs nothing. It’s an extra hour, maybe two. If they do that, it has almost no impact on them, but they’ll save lots of whales. And this was only recently discovered; 10 years ago, we didn’t even know whales were there.
PLAYING FOR KEEPS: A blue whale (blue dot) trying to feed while avoiding vessels (red dots) in the Gulf of Ancud, in Chile. Credit: Luis Bedriñana-Romano.
The movement patterns of whales are dynamic, though. What happens when they change?
Whales used to be more static. They’d have nursing grounds and feeding grounds, and those were very static. Today, because of climate change, the food is moving, and the whales are moving, too.
You need to put out observers who can say, “This year, the whales have not arrived to this area, so you can speed up if you want. But in this area, we need to enforce, right away, a maximum speed of 10 knots.” So there are new complexities that come with climate change—but the technology, the understanding, the science, and the money, are all there. We just need willingness from the right people.
Who are those people? And how do you get that willingness?
In my 25 years of investment banking, I met everyone from Margaret Thatcher to James Baker, the secretary of state of the United States. I met so many interesting people—and they know very little about the ocean and its animals. So first we need to get them to understand what is happening, and then to understand that there is an economic interest in protecting whales. The International Monetary Fund published a report that values at $1 trillion the amount of CO2 sequestration that whales contribute to the planet; they also make the ocean more productive.
One simple example is that, when whales were hunted and at the brink of disappearing, most scientists thought that krill would be more abundant because whales were not feeding on them. Actually, it was the opposite. Why? Because whales feed the phytoplankton with nitrates from their feces, and then krill eat the plankton. So if the whales are not there to regenerate the phytoplankton, they don’t feed the krill, and they don’t feed all the rest of the food chain. There are so many animals who depend on krill.
We need to be more patient, to go more slowly.
It’s a bit like marine protected areas. A lot of people tend to think, “Oh no, this is terrible, I’m not going to be able to fish this area.” But it’s been proven that when you have MPAs, they generate so much life that flows into the surrounding areas that fishermen can exploit.
Decision makers need to get familiar with the subject. I have come across very well-prepared technocrats and economists who know little about this complexity and how the ocean is interconnected with our day-to-day lives, directly and indirectly. When they understand that there is money involved, maybe they will react. They will be able to defend their decisions to certain economic groups and say, “I’m looking at the bigger picture.” But I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s very hard.
Speaking of hard, our conversation has concentrated on the issue of shipping routes and avoiding direct collisions. But noise is another big problem—and even if the paths of ships and whales don’t directly overlap, the noise will still be there.
That might take some time. Noise is a topic that clearly needs to be researched more and understood better—but we know that it’s terrible.
Now, when you look at the International Maritime Organization, they have directives with regards to CO2 emissions. By 2050 every ship on the planet is supposed be CO2 emission-free. They’ll have to make some restrictions about noise, too.
But noise in the ocean does not only come from the ships. It’s also the mining, the exploration, the big wind farms. It’s a big topic, and I don’t think it’s going to be fixed easily, because it’s even more complicated than deviating a little bit or slowing down.
You were able to get MSC, the world’s largest shipping company, to change its routes. How did you manage that?
MSC and I have been collaborating for a few years. They issued a private edition of my book, Call of the Blue, and are about to do a second edition. When I discussed this with them, I wasn’t just picking any company; I thought that MSC had a real willingness to do better in the ocean. I felt that these people would sit down and talk and change things more than, say, petrochemical companies.
So I had a straight connection into management, and I said, “Listen, these are small changes for you that have been discussed at length for many years. You are a leader in the industry. You can be portrayed as an institution who leads by example.” It was a frank discussion, but they knew they could do lots of things. And before we got to the topic of Sri Lanka, they were already changing routes in the Hellenic trench in Greece, where the population of sperm whales has been destroyed. So there is willingness—and they’re not the only ones.
Hapag-Lloyd is willing. Euronav is willing. The thing is, they need to act, not only say “Yes, we’d be happy to.” They cannot wait for the international agencies to tell them that they need to do it. They’re free to make a lot of changes themselves without consulting with governments or inter-government institutions.
Those are very high-level conversations. But can the average person do something to make a difference?
For sure. For example, remember what I said about fast ferries in the Canary Islands. I don’t think that anybody needs to travel from La Gomera to Tenerife in 30 minutes. People could take 45 minutes, or an hour, and they’ll be happy—particularly if they get to see some whales.
And to the extent that our everyday lives touch on transnational shipping or the consumption of fish, are those points of leverage as well?
They’re essential. The film starts by saying we should consume local. I want to do a film just about water. Give me one reason why you’re drinking some San Pellegrino water from Italy in New York. Why? And why do we need to get things right away? How we consume is super powerful.
Because now we have Amazon and we want everything tomorrow. So they go back and forth, back and forth, moving much faster than in the past. We need to be more patient, to go more slowly, to think about how we consume. That is essential.
Lead image: Still from the documentary Collision.
Posted on September 14, 2023
Brandon Keim (Twitter / Mastodon / Substack) is an independent journalist and editor of the ocean section at Nautilus. He is now finishing Meet the Neighbors, a book about animal personhood and nature, which will be published by W.W. Norton in 2024.
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