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Sailor Forced to Abandon Round-the-World Race Confirms it was a Whale Strike

Earlier this month a video was released confirming French sailor Kito de Pavant’s 60-ft (18.28 m) racing yacht struck a whale on December 6th, 2016 while he was competing in the Vendee Globe yacht race. This was the eighth edition of the Vendee Globe, a solo, nonstop around-the-world race, and paired 29 of the world’s most elite sailors with the best sailing technology available.

Kito de Pavant was just a month into the race and 120 miles north of the Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean when his yacht struck an object, seriously damaging the boat and causing it to take on water. There was a research and supply ship in the area, and he was successfully rescued. A video of the collision was found on the boat computer’s hard drive at the end of February, and it clearly shows a whale in the wake of the yacht immediately after the collision.(Reports have stated that it was a sperm whale, but in the video two blowholes can be seen, indicating that it was a baleen whale and not a sperm whale, which is a toothed whale. Forward to 2:25 if you just want to see the whale.)

de Pavant is fortunate that the impact with the whale had not caused more immediate damage and he could be evacuated. This is just one of many sailing-related stories of encounters with these giant marine mammals.  The extent of the damage to the vessel is almost always apparent, but unfortunately, in this and many other cases, we don’t know the extent of the injuries sustained by the whale.

Coincidentally, the same month the video was discovered Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) was in Austin, Texas, at the US Sailing’s National Sailing Programs Symposium, presenting on this very topic.

WDC, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum teamed up with US Sailing and developed outreach materials for sailors of all ages and skill levels through a program called Sharing the Seas. The program educates sailors regarding the identification and behavior of marine mammals and sea turtles to sailors, to empower sailors to utilize safe boating techniques that reduce disturbances and injury to whales and other marine life.  Components of the program include easy-to-remember tips for safe operation around whales or in areas where whales are likely to be present, and information for contacting the appropriate authorities in the event a whale or turtle is seen entangled or otherwise in distress.

Monica Pepe, Policy Manager-Conservation and Education for WDC states, “Each large whale species behaves very differently, and understanding those differences can minimize the risk of a dangerous interaction.” She goes on to explain how the Sharing the Seas program complements two other boater education programs, See a Spout, Watch Out! and Whale SENSE. Both programs were co-founded by WDC and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

See a Spout is an education program aimed at promoting responsible boat handling around whales by recreational boat users (as opposed to commercial whale watch boats). The program is focused in the Gulf of Maine, particularly in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Whale SENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program offered to commercial whale watching companies in the Greater Atlantic and Juneau, Alaska by NOAA Fisheries Service and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Currently, 23 commercial whale watching companies participate in the program, which was awarded an Environmental Merit Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.

Pepe concludes, “Through the field reference guide and information on the Sharing the Seas website and our other education programs, we’ll achieve our goal to make sure that sailors and all boating enthusiasts have access to information that will help keep themselves and marine life safe.”

For more information about Sharing the Seas, See a Spout, or WhaleSENSE, please email contact@whales.org