It looks like the Sapphire Princess did not kill, but unfortunately managed to rake, a dead humpback whale onto its bulbous bow two weeks ago.
Investigators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service said that the whale was probably dead when the ship picked it up.
But the media damage was done. A British newspaper’s headline read, "Whale found pinned to Princess liner is the third in a decade," but the publication did not follow up to let readers know the whale was already deceased.
These incidents make for big headlines, but cruise ships are a small part of the problem that whales face from ship strikes.
NOAA said the whale pinned to the Sapphire Princess was likely to have been killed by another boat’s propeller, a fate suffered by hundreds of whales every year. The ships don’t always report the strikes — and since they aren’t carrying thousands of tourists with iPhones, the media doesn’t hear about it.
NOAA said that ship strikes with large whales in Alaska appear to be increasing, which could be due to an increasing population of humpback whales in the North Pacific as well as greater reporting effort.
Cruise lines use various types of whale-avoidance technology as well as old-fashioned telescopes and information-sharing with other ships in the area.
NOAA gave Holland America Line the Conservation Partnership Award a few years ago for developing whale-avoidance measures that it promoted to other cruise lines.
"The company’s dedication to protect whales, regardless of its effect on the financial bottom line, is at the forefront of marine mammal conservation among the cruise line industry," the group said.
The International Whaling Commission’s recommendation is for marine vessels to avoid whales in general. "It may sound obvious," the commission said on its website, "but the most effective way to reduce collision risk is to keep whales and ships apart."
But that would not work well for the cruise industry, which brings its passengers to parts of the world such as Alaska and Hawaii, sometimes specifically to see whales in their environment.