A Case Study of a Near Vessel Strike of a Blue Whale: Perceptual Cues and Fine-Scale Aspects of Behavioral Avoidance
Despite efforts to aid recovery, Eastern North Pacific blue whales faces numerous anthropogenic threats. These include behavioral disturbances and noise interference with communication, but also direct physical harm – notably injury and mortality from ship strikes. Factors leading to ship strikes are poorly understood, with virtually nothing known about the cues available to blue whales from nearby vessels, behavioral responses during close encounters, or how these events may contribute to subsequent responses. At what distance and received levels (RLs) of noise whales respond to potential collisions is difficult to observe. A unique case study of a close passage between a commercial vessel and a blue whale off Southern California is presented here. This whale was being closely monitored as part of another experiment after two suction-cup archival tags providing acoustic, depth, kinematic, and location data were attached to the whale. The calibrated, high-resolution data provided an opportunity to examine the sensory information available to the whale and its response during the close encounter. Complementary data streams from the whale and ship enabled a precise calculation of the distance and acoustic cues recorded on the tag when the whale initiated a behavioral response and shortly after at the closest point of approach (CPA). Immediately before the CPA, the whale aborted its ascent and remained at a depth sufficient to avoid being struck for ∼3 min until the ship passed. In this encounter, the whale may have responded to a combination of cues associated with the close proximity of the vessel to avoid a collision. Long-term photo-identification records indicate that this whale has a long sighting history in the region, with evidence of previous ship encounters. Therefore, experiential factors may have facilitated the avoidance of a collision. In some instances these factors may not be available, which may make some blue whales particularly susceptible to deadly collisions, rendering efforts for ship-strike reduction even more challenging. The fine-scale information made available by the integration of these methods and technologies demonstrates the capacity for detailed behavioral studies of blue whales and other highly mobile marine megafauna, which will contribute to more informed evaluation and mitigation strategies.