What are Cruise Lines Doing to Avoid Whales?

(9:45 a.m. EDT) — Since last week’s unfortunate incident in Alaska, in which a dead whale was discovered on the bow of Princess CruisesSapphire Princess, travellers have been asking what cruise lines do — and what they can do better — to avoid such situations.

Because large mammals are too small to show up on radar, cruise ships must rely on actual whale sightings and reports from other ships to determine if whales are in the area. One cruise line, however, has made a timely announcement following this latest incident.

Italian-based Costa Cruises is working with the charity World Wildlife Fund, which it has supported since 2005, to monitor whale activity from one of its ships, Costa Pacifica, using newly launched technology called REPCET.

The REPCET program (www.repcet.com), funded by a variety of NGOs and businesses around the Mediterranean, is used by a network of shipping companies to share information about sightings of whales in busy shipping lanes. The data they generate is shared in real time, via a communications satellite, so other ships in the REPCET system know immediately where there is whale activity.

Check out this nifty simulator demo for a taste of how it works: http://www.repcet.com/simulateur_en

REPCET has only just been launched and the kit, a small, white transmitter box, relies initially on visual detection of whales, which is how the crew on most cruise ships spot them anyway. But the manufacturer says it’s future-proof and will evolve to work with other types of automatic sensor, which means it could eventually function at night, too, without human input.

Because it’s so new, REPCET technology is only currently being used in the Mediterranean; Costa Pacifica is actually operating a summer season of Med cruises and is monitoring whale activity in areas off the coasts of France, Spain, Italy and Tunisia.

But back to Alaska, where passengers go specifically to see whales, what are cruise lines doing to avoid collisions?

A Silversea spokeswoman told Cruise Critic that the line has additional watchkeepers on the bridge in Alaska, while Oceania and Regent Seven Seas spokesman Tim Rubacky said: “Our vessels currently rely on visual sightings as well as reports from other vessels. If whales are sighted or they receive a report of them, the officer of the watch is to alter course and/or reduce speed and proceed with all due caution until, to the best of their knowledge, the vessel is clear of or sufficiently downrange of them to ensure clear navigation and no danger to them.”

NCL‘s policy is much the same; the line told us today that captains and bridge officers undergo specific training on whale avoidance.

Princess Cruises, meanwhile, has a set of guidelines that include altering course and reducing speed when whales are sighted and also incorporates whale-avoidance training in the sessions held on its new bridge simulator in The Netherlands, attended by all officers.

Holland America Line also went a step further a few years ago and developed a computer-based training program for all its deck officers, teaching the crew to identify individual species of whale and as a result, anticipate their behavioral patterns and take appropriate action. For example, if a mother and calf are spotted, the ship should slow to 10 knots, and it should merely drift if surrounded by a whole pod of whales.

Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Cruise West did not respond by press time.

We still don’t know how last week’s whale met its end; the post-mortem may determine that it was already dead, which was the conclusion of a similar incident last year involving Sapphire Princess. Stay tuned and we’ll update the story as soon as there’s news.

–by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor

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