Sapphire Princess disrupted by whale

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2010

The docking of the Sapphire Princess in Juneau was delayed Wednesday when a deceased whale was discovered on the cruise ship's bulbous bow.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Julie Speegle, public affairs officer for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the whale was found around 8 a.m. when the ship was south of Juneau, near Tracy Arm.

"It apparently became lodged there overnight," she said.

At that time the ship contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, who in turn informed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the incident. Both agencies responded to the site.

Speegle said the boat stopped in an area south of Douglas Island, but did not dock while divers hired by Princess Cruises worked to dislodge the whale. After it was removed, the whale was transported away by tugboat for a necropsy to determine the cause of death. A press release by Princess Cruises said the whale was taken away through Stephens Passage.

The work was completed and the ship was cleared to proceed to depart shortly after 3 p.m., arriving around an hour later.

Speegle said the species of whale could not be confirmed until the necropsy. "We don't definitely know but photos from (NOAA) Protected Resources say it appears to be a juvenile humpback," she said.

She said the necropsy will be performed somewhere south of Juneau, but an exact location was not known.

Each agency showed up with a specific task to help remove the carcass and get the ship underway.

NOAA's Protected Resource Division provided consultation and will perform the necropsy. NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement will interview crewmembers of the Sapphire Princess about the incident.

Chief Petty Officer Dana Warr said the Coast Guard was there to oversee the operation and transfer personnel as needed.

"Coast Guard Station Juneau is working with NOAA, shipping agents and Princess Cruises' management to help mitigate any biological or navigational hazard in the port and providing a response asset on scene during the removal process," Coast Guard Acting Sector Commander Cmdr. Matt Jones said in a press release.

In another press release, Karen Candy, media relations manager for Princess Cruises, said the cruise lines takes its responsibility to marine life very seriously and has guidelines for whale avoidance when they are sighted. Guidelines include course alterations and speed reduction.

"We have strict whale avoidance procedures in place when our ships are in the vicinity of marine life. Upon discovering the whale, we immediately notified the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service for further assistance," she said. "We are fully cooperating with the investigation into this incident," she said.

The release said it was unknown how the ship struck the whale as none were sighted in close proximity to the ship at the time of impact. She also said the ship did not feel the impact.

Passenger Tom Easley of Hernando, Miss., agreed. "Apparently people on the boat didn't know," he said.

The ship was originally schedule to dock in Juneau at 2 p.m. The delay had little impact on schedules and local attractions due to schedules accommodations by the cruise line and participating tourism agencies.

Easley and his wife, Laura, said the cruise line was very accommodating in rescheduling activities, even calling them in their stateroom to do so.

Representatives from zip line and helicopter tours said there would still be enough time to accommodate patrons. An employee from Temsco Helicopters said all but two original customers would have time for their scheduled activities.

Naturalist guide Jami Likins of Gastineau Hiking said the passengers' hikes would go on even if they had to go on when it's a little darker.

One of her hikers, Anita Poppe of Mercer Island, Wash., said she was "more concerned about the whale than the delay."

Several passengers also expressed how the whale's death was a sad moment in their trip. Personnel at the docks were also aware of what happened and had similar feelings.

"Whales are what we live about here in Juneau," Likins said.

This is not the Sapphire Princess' first whale encounter. The cruise ship returned from an Alaskan voyage with a dead fin whale attached to its bow in July 2009.

• Contact Jonathan Grass at 523-2276.

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