Federal wildlife investigators are looking into a video filmed from a nearby vessel that appears to show a Holland America ship passing in close proximity to a group of killer whales near Juneau.
A person aboard a SUNY maritime training vessel shot the video on Sunday in the area of Baranof Island. Kristopher Mounsey said others shot videos as well and reported the incident to federal authorities. He described the Volendam as traveling at an “unsafe” speed as it moved past.
Federal regulations require ships avoid disturbing whales.
The short clip shows several fins in the water around the ship as it glides past. People can be heard calling out in alarm. One whale pokes its head out of the water, “spyhopping” to get a glimpse above the surface.
There is no obvious sign the ship struck any of the animals.
Holland America said the incident occurred just before 7:45 p.m. that evening and the ship had enough room to get by the animals.
“Volendam was en route to Ketchikan in Chatham Strait with local southeast Alaska pilots embarked. The watch on the bridge noticed several Orca whales located to the starboard side while passing a nearby small cruise ship,” cruise line spokesman Erik Elvejord said in a statement. “The bridge team, including the pilot who was conning the ship” -- controlling the ship’s movements -- “determined there was sufficient required distance between the ship and whales to pass safely.”
Enforcement personnel with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are reviewing the video, according to Casey Brennan, the chief of staff of the agency’s law-enforcement office in Maryland.
Brennan said he couldn’t comment on the particulars, or whether it appears the ship was doing anything wrong.
The agency closed a similar case in June involving a widely shared video showing a Holland America ship in an apparent near-miss with a pod of humpback whales. The Office of Law Enforcement in July concluded the Eurodam altered course and slowed down as it approached the whales.
Killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bars their “take" which can range from harassing animals to hurting or killing them.
Generally, the federal protections hinge on not disturbing whales in Alaskan waters or changing their behavior, according to Suzie Teerlink, a marine mammal specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau. That means giving them space to do things like feed, rest, or nurse their young.
“As a vessel navigating through Alaska, there’s difficult decisions to be made,” Teerlink said. “We know and we recognize that it’s always important for a vessel to take into consideration the safety of the vessel and the passengers on board. When it comes to large ships sometimes course changes aren’t even possible. I don’t know if that applies here.”
Federal regulations don’t specify how far ships must stay from killer whales like they do for humpback whales, which can’t be approached within 100 yards, she said. But same “take” regulations govern all the marine mammal species.
A general code of conduct that NOAA publishes for viewing whales recommends leaving the area if the animals start underwater exhalations or surface displays.
Holland America follows a comprehensive Whale Strike Avoidance program developed in cooperation with the fisheries service and the National Parks Service, according to the corporate statement emailed by Elvejord. “Ships have clear guidelines on how to operate if whales are sighted nearby, which include altering course and reducing speed as required and when safe to do so."