In early April, the lifeless body of a 60-foot-long blue whale was found floating in the water about 12 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka. Its tail had been nearly severed from the body, obviously the result of having been slashed by a ship’s propeller.
- Ship strikes are a leading cause of death among whales around the globe. The problem is particularly troublesome in Sri Lanka, where a largely unstudied colony of blue whales, the largest known animal to have ever existed, possibly numbering in the thousands, who inhabit an area extremely close to the coast, has come under increasing pressure from commercial shipping and from a boom in unregulated whale-watching boats
Fifteen miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and whales are known to swim regularly inside them. Adding to the problem, scientists speculate that an substantial increase in whale watching could be forcing whales to seek food farther out, pushing them into the ships’ path.
The whale’s death in April was the sixth of the year. In March, a blue whale was found draped over the bow of a container vessel in the harbor in the capital, Colombo. Last year, some 20 whale carcasses (not all of them blue whales) were seen around the island. It is not known how many of the deaths resulted from ship strikes.
The strikes likely represent only a portion of the true mortality. Because blue whales often sink soon after they are struck. The true number killed could be much higher than what has been observed.
For over a century, blue whales were hunted almost to extinction until protected by international law in 1966. In 2002 it was estimated there were only 5,000 to 12,000 blue whales worldwide.
In 2009, Sri Lanka ended a 25-year civil war that largely kept foreign scientists and researchers away from these waters. Several general surveys in the 1970s revealed the existence of the colony of blues, but it was not until the 1990s that interest in them started to grow. Researchers are now scrambling to find ways to protect them.
Researchers were particularly drawn by the whales’ tendency to stay here year round; other blue whale populations are known to migrate vast distances.
Whale watching has become a critical part of Sri Lanka’s development strategy to boost the economy. But the increasing number of collisions between ships and whales have scientists concerned that the rush to promote whale watching may be happening too fast.
- The whale watching industry in Sri Lanka is currently unregulated and growing. Whale-watching boats are driving helter-skelter around the animals. In countries with established whale-watching industries, laws prohibit getting close to the animals; the United States sets the minimum distance at 100 yards.
Source: New York Times.