From: Daniel Woolls, Associated Press
Published February 26, 2007 12:00 AM

Slow Down and Watch Out for Whales, Spain Tells Ships in Strait of Gibraltar

MADRID, Spain -- Spain wants ships to slow down and watch out for whales while passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the world's busiest maritime routes.


The recommendation drew praise Saturday from environmentalists who sought the measure for years to prevent collisions with whales. Fast ferries, especially, can be a threat to endangered sperm whales, which come to the strait from the Mediterranean to feed between February and July.


The whales "do not know what is going on around them," said Katharina Heyer, president of the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals, an environmental group based in the Spanish town of Tarifa overlooking the strait.


The Spanish navy's recommendation earlier this month urged ships to go no faster than 15 mph and sail "in a maximum state of vigilance" to avoid colliding with the whales. Sailing speeds in the strait separating Europe from Africa vary greatly, but high-speed ferries can reach nearly 35 mph.


It is "the first time in the Mediterranean, and probably in Europe, a measure of this kind has been taken," said Renaud de Stephanis, a marine biologist with the Center for Conservation, Information and Research on Cetaceans in southern Spain.


During the feeding season, the strait is home to 20-30 sperm whales, which are about 60 feet long, said de Stephanis. Year round, there is a population of about 300 smaller pilot whales.


Collisions are difficult to document partly because currents in the strait are so strong that when a whale gets hit it is quickly washed into the open Mediterranean, de Stephanis said.


There were two confirmed collisions with sperm whales and three with fin whales between 2001-2005, according to a report by de Stephanis' center for the Spanish environment ministry.


De Stephanis said he witnessed one of those crashes while on a research mission in September 2002. A ferry heading from Morocco to Spain collided with a sperm whale and did not stop.


"Its ribs were broken and it had a very big internal hemorrhage," De Stephanis said in a telephone interview.


The whale bled for about an hour and died, and a maritime rescue vessel towed the carcass out of the shipping lanes and into the Mediterranean.


Source: Associated Press


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