The blue whale is the largest animal to ever exist, but a new study suggests the cetacean’s massize size may be more of a hindrance than a help in the modern age.
For years, scientists have struggled to understand why the blue whale often collides with ships. The marine mammals are considered highly intelligent, yet incidents with boats are their leading cause of death. A new study from the National Park Service may finally have the answer.
According to researchers, the problem is that the blue whale has not learned to avoid gigantic human ships. At 100 feet long and 320,000 pounds, the blue whale has never had to make way for anything else in its 30 million years on Earth. It simply hasn’t evolved the survival instinct to avoid fast, large ships. And since collisions with ships are often fatal for the whale, there is litte opportunity for whales to learn of the danger until it’s too late.
Researchers reached their conclusion after attaching GPS trackers and dive-logging recorders to blue whales near Los Angeles, where the animals gather to feed in May through October. They then cross-referenced the whale’s movements with those of boats in the area. They found large ships would often make close passes to blue whales, as little as 65 yards away, but in each case the whales barely responded. Since whales have to dive at least 100 feet to avoid a ship’s propellers, that lack of response can often be fatal.
Scientists are working on a technology to predict where blue whales might congregate, in order to warn ship captains of impending collisions. With blue whale populations threatened, ships may have to be rerouted to ensure the species survival.
Researchers also plan to use methods pioneered in the study to investigate how other marine mammals, such as humpback whales, react to ship traffic.