ESR 27:219-232 (2015)  -  DOI:

Simultaneous tracking of blue whales and large ships demonstrates limited behavioral responses for avoiding collision

Megan F. McKenna1,2,5,*, John Calambokidis2, Erin M. Oleson3, David W. Laist1, Jeremy A. Goldbogen4

1Marine Mammal Commission, 4340 East-West Highway, Suite 700, Bethesda, MD 20814, USA
2Cascadia Research Collective, 218½ West 4th Ave., Olympia, WA 98501, USA
3NOAA-NMFS-Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, 1601 Kapiolani Blvd. Ste. 1110, Honolulu, HI 96814, USA
4Department of Biology, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, USA
5Present address: National Park Service, 1201 Oakridge Drive, Fort Collins, CO 80525, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Collisions between ships and whales are reported throughout the world’s oceans. For some endangered whale populations, ship strikes are a major threat to survival and recovery. Factors known to affect the incidence and severity of collisions include spatial co-occurrence of ships and whales, hydrodynamic forces around ships, and ship speed. Less understood and likely key to understanding differences in interactions between whales and ships is whale behavior in the presence of ships. In commercial shipping lanes off southern California, we simultaneously recorded blue whale behavior and commercial ship movement. A total of 20 ship passages with 9 individual whales were observed at distances ranging from 60 to 3600 m. We documented a dive response (i.e. shallow dive during surface period) of blue whales in the path of oncoming ships in 55% of the ship passages, but found no evidence for lateral avoidance. Descent rate, duration, and maximum depth of the observed response dives were similar to whale behavior immediately after suction-cup tag deployments. These behavioral data were combined with ship hydrodynamic forces to evaluate the maximum ship speed that would allow a whale time to avoid an oncoming ship. Our analysis suggests that the ability of blue whales to avoid ships is limited to relatively slow descents, with no horizontal movements away from a ship. We posit that this constrained response repertoire would limit their ability to adjust their response behavior to different ship speeds. This is likely a factor in making blue whales, and perhaps other large whales, more vulnerable to ship strikes.

KEY WORDS: Ship-whale collision · Blue whales · Avoidance behavior · Ship speed · AIS · Bio‑logging tags

Full text in pdf format 
Supplementary material 
Cite this article as: McKenna MF, Calambokidis J, Oleson EM, Laist DW, Goldbogen JA (2015) Simultaneous tracking of blue whales and large ships demonstrates limited behavioral responses for avoiding collision. Endang Species Res 27:219-232.

Export citation
Mail this link - Contents Mailing Lists - RSS
- -