How cruise ships bring agonising death to last Greek whales

Government promises action on crashes to avoid carnage on busy shipping routes

In an office up a steep hill in a seaside suburbium of Athens, a tiny blue light flickers from a computer terminal. Dr Alexandros Frantzis, Greece’s foremost oceanographer, phases it out. The illumination, he says, tracks marine traffic” in real time “.

It is key to saving one of the world’s most endangered whale populations.

” It logs the position, course and velocity of a ship entering Greek waters ,” he tells.” And that is vital to mapping shipping densities in areas populated by sperm whales .”

Frantzis has expended nearly a one-quarter of a century examining marine mammals. His desk, like his small Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, is testimony to a passion that has helped transform understanding of dolphins, porpoises and whales in a country where little was known about marine life scarcely two decades ago.

Shelves are stacked high with the bones of sea mammals big and small. The remains of a sperm whale’s lower jaw are propped against a wall up his back office. And in a room beyond, the skeletons of two whales- gargantuan, crusty and yellow- lie neatly assembled across the floor.

” Greece’s marine environment is very rich in species ,” tells Frantzis.” In antiquity cetaceans were taken very seriously. Aristotle wrote the first scientific study, his Historia Animalium , about them. You could tell Greeks are the first and the last to come to the field, which is why urgent measures are being taken .”

Sperm whales are the focus of Frantzis’s latest campaign. Although prevalent in other oceans there are fewer than 300 in Greek water, their largest habitat in the eastern Mediterranean.

Like marine mammals in most places, the whales face a multitude of threats, from entanglement in fishing nets to ingestion of plastic waste.

In Greece there is the added danger of noise pollution from Nato warships conducting underwater sonar drills- exercisings blamed for disorienting whales reliant on their own sort of sonar to navigate and hunt.

Seismic surveys, in accordance with the discovery of underwater hydrocarbons, also pose a threat.

But Frantzis tells the biggest danger to local cetaceans is the chance of colliding with a ship. He singles out the water off the western Peloponnese, an area where whales swarm but one of the busiest roads for shipping.

Last month a nine-metre whale washed up on a beach in Santorini, the latest in a series of strandings. Frantzis now has a large white bone- one of its teeth- on his desk.

For sperm whales, death by collision is by far the most painful, he claims, with propellers often leaving the animals torn and gashed.

” We don’t know how this latest incident resulted ,” he sighs, dispelling reports that huge amounts of plastic had been found in the mammal’s digestive tract.” But what we do know is that at the least one whale every year is killed as a result of a ship ten-strike. It’s a death rate the species in these portions cannot survive .”

Conservationists are saying that if shipping lanes were routed farther offshore, the risk of ship strikes would fell dramatically.

” Sperm whales like waters off steep underwater gradients but unfortunately the Hellenic trench off the Peloponnese is also the direct route for ships moving parallel to the coast ,” the British marine mammal scientist Russell Leaper told the Observer .

Dead
A dead whale washed up on a Greek beach- injuries from a large ship’s propeller are obvious. Photo: Dr Alexandros Frantzis/ Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute

” The solution would be to move ships a little bit offshore into deeper water less favoured by whales ,” he said from the Scottish island of Coll, where he was find minke whales and dolphins last week. A marine mammal expert with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Leaper has spent more than 20 years analyzing ship ten-strikes and says that in Greek oceans they account for more than 60% of whale demises although most, he adds, go unreported and unrecorded.

Greece is not alone. The southern tip-off of Sri Lanka- one of the world’s busiest shipping routes- represents a similar danger for the blue whale population.

Environmentalists have won unexpected support from the shipping industry. The International Maritime Organization, recognise their own problems, has drawn up guidelines.

Earlier this month, the International Whaling Commission exhorted the Greek government to take action, saying scientific proof showed that ship ten-strikes needed to be tackled.

” There are times when whales have been caught in the bow of a ship with half a tail ripped off ,” Leaper says.” Sometimes you get a body that shows no external meanders but the bones have been crushed. In all cases it is a very horrible route to die .”

Prime pastor Alexis Tsipras’s leftist-led coalition is expected to submit proposals to the IMO to reroute shipping lanes the summer months. Frantzis and his squad have helped identify water that are prone to ship strikes because of the overlap of high densities of whales. Much of their studies has been based on mathematical analysis conducted by Leaper, who believes shifting traffic five miles farther offshore would suffice. He also quotes the example of approaches being altered to the Panama canal and off the shores of the California.

” For a cruise liner running at 20 knots, that[ five miles] would add 15 minutes to the entire journey ,” he says.” It’s a pressing preservation and welfare problem and very easy to solve. Greece has the opportunity to come forward with proposals that will help resolve this, and might also help other countries come forward as well .”

Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com

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