An endangered fin whale found dead on the bow of a cruise ship that docked in Seward this summer was killed when it was struck by the 61,000-ton ship, federal investigators have found, but neither the crew nor the operator of the vessel were determined to be at fault in the collision.
The dead whale, a juvenile male, was found draped over the bulbous bow of Holland America Line's Zaandam, carrying more than 2,000 passengers and crew, after it docked in Seward early on the morning of May 29. Its carcass was necropsied on a nearby beach that day by a team that included an officer from NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement.
"The OLE investigation determined that the vessel and operator are not liable for the 'take' of the fin whale in question," NOAA spokeswoman Allyson Rogers wrote in an email last week. "While the necropsy results identify the cause of death as related to a boat strike, it's unknown if the whale was in good health at the time of the collision (as fin whales have numerous documented health concerns)."
In a statement Wednesday, Holland America said the cruise line has a policy in place to avoid whale strikes.
"Our ships have clear guidelines on how to operate if whales are sighted nearby, which include altering course and reducing speed as required," Holland America staff wrote. "In this case we were not aware of any whales in the area."
Nicolai Tykalsky, an enforcement officer with NOAA's National Maritime Fisheries Service, said the ship strike killing the whale didn't automatically mean Holland America was at fault in the collision.
"When the whale did get struck by the cruise ship it did cause its death, but that doesn't mean the liability falls on the operator of the cruise ship," Tykalsky said.
NOAA didn't reach its findings on the incident until earlier this month. The necropsy findings regarding the whale's health, which involved extensive testing of samples as well as discussion of the results, are still being evaluated.
Tykalsky said the whale was spotted just off Seward in Resurrection Bay before it was hit by the Zaandam.
"The fin whale was in the bay, which was not normal," Tykalsky said. "This one had been seen hanging out around the Alaska SeaLife Center for the last two weeks, where the small boats are — that was kind of unusual behavior."
The Zaandam was traveling within maximum approach speeds for Seward, ranging from 10 to 12 knots as it entered Resurrection Bay, Tykalsky said, with a full complement of lookouts posted at the time — none of whom saw the whale before the impact.
"I looked at all their ship logs — everything they did was by the book," Tykalsky said. "It was dark at the time; there was no noise when (the ship and the whale) struck."
Tykalsky likened the collision to a moose stepping in front of a truck on a road, noting that the approach speed limits for Seward don't preclude vessels hitting animals.
"That doesn't mean that even at that safe speed they're able to avoid a collision with a marine mammal, even if they see one," Tykalsky said. "Whales can just pop up straight out of the water and boom — there's a collision."
According to Tykalsky, the whale has drawn significant attention from the scientific community, since the necropsy was conducted so soon after its death.
"They've taken a lot more samples from this whale, given that it's fresh and they were able to divulge into its organs more than usual," Tykalsky said.
The summer of 2015 saw a wave of large whales turn up dead in the Gulf of Alaska, leading NOAA to dub the die-off an "unusual mortality event." Eleven fin whales, which can grow to more than 70 feet long and weigh 45 tons, were found dead in that event.
Also this summer, about a month after the Zaandam incident, a stranded fin whale died in Knik Arm. NOAA was examining whether that whale had any connection to the previous year's die-off.
News editor Ben Anderson contributed information to this report.