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Quantifying behavior and collision risk of humpback whales surfacing near large ships: implications for detection and avoidance

Jennifer E. Helm*, Scott M. Gende, Paul M. Lukacs

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Lethal collisions between ships and whales (‘ship strikes’) are a pressing management issue across the globe, and recent work highlights the need for better information to support collision risk avoidance by mariners. Using a ship-based observer stationed on the bow, we recorded the behavior of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae surfacing around large cruise ships transiting Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in North America. We documented surfacing bouts (i.e. series of surfacings when whales breathe between deeper foraging dives) over 460 hours of observation from 65 cruises. We detected few surfacings per bout (mean = 2.9) and observed a moderate within-bout submergence time (median = 20.1 s), showing that whales are unavailable for detection during the majority of their time near the surface. We then used these data to parameterize a modified mark-recapture model to estimate the probability of a whale surfacing before and after first detection by mariners. The estimated probability that a whale surfaced prior to detection was moderate (0.55; 95% credible interval (CRI): 0.50-0.59), indicating that often, the first detected cue (e.g. a blow or a visible fluke) was not the first cue produced (i.e. available to be detected). The probability that a whale remained near the surface following detection was high (median = 0.87; 95% CRI: 0.68 – 0.89). This indicates that whales likely remain at risk of collision following detection, enabling mariners to evaluate ship-speed-specific avoidance maneuvers based on initial sighting distances to decrease collision risk.