• Second season of blue whale surveys off Sri Lanka coast could help move shipping lanes

     

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    Big ships and big whales don’t mix.

    We’re south of Sri Lanka, home to one of the world’s highest densities of blue whales, for a second year of field research.

    Our goal? To gather data to stop the problem of blue whales being killed by ship strikes in the main Indian Ocean shipping lane, one of the world’s busiest with around 100 ships, including some of the world’s largest tankers and container ships, passing each day.

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    Waters off Sri Lanka have one of the world’s worst ship strike problems, with several animals washing up dead every year and many more likely unreported. This is both a major welfare and conservation concern and a team of researchers from IFAW, Biosphere Foundation, the University of Ruhuna (Matara, Sri Lanka) and local whale watch company, Raja and the Whales, is looking for a solution.

    Our whale surveys from this year and last year, both inshore and further offshore, are showing the following:

    While whales and ships share the same space near the coastline, further out to sea, there’s scarcely a whale to be found. Data from local whale watch boats also seem to tell the same story.

    Looking at the underwater topology, that makes perfect sense. Near the coastline, the seabed shelves rapidly down to 1000m or deeper over just a couple of miles, with a highly productive year-round upwelling ensuring there’s always plenty of food for the whales. Further out to sea, the seabed is flat and deep – seldom a good feeding area for whales.

    So moving the shipping lane further offshore by just some 15 miles might really make a difference to the whales – but would be of negligible inconvenience ships on their long ocean passage.

    The need for a solution is urgent.

    This northern Indian Ocean population of blue whales does not migrate to high latitudes, so is likely to calve in the same area that it feeds.

    This year we’ve already seen several very small blue whale calves with their mothers. Young animals are known to be particularly vulnerable to ship strikes.

    It’s rare that such a serious welfare and conservation problem appears to have such a tangible solution.

    We’re still in the early stages of our project, and the road ahead is a long one, but there’s a very real opportunity to radically improve the situation for the northern Indian Ocean blue whale population.

    –SC

    Learn more IFAW’s work to reduce injuries to whales, visit our campaign page.

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