Woman hurt by whale under boat

Tourist suffers minor head injury during sightseeing voyage

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2006

A female tourist was treated at Bartlett Regional Hospital for a minor head injury after a humpback whale surfaced Wednesday morning under a whale-watching jet boat in North Pass.

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The whale swam away and the 42-foot Awesome Orca boat was not damaged, said Orca Enterprise owner Carol Pitts.

The woman required a few stitches after the force of the whale caused her to lose her balance and hit her head on an unknown object in the captain's station, Pitts said.

"We've been operating 10 years and we've never had a situation like that happen," Pitts said. "We've heard that some of the whales have been curious and we've heard rumors that they've rubbed up against some of the boats."

The Awesome Orca left at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday from Auke Bay and was 50 minutes into its 212-hour tour at the time of the incident. The boat was idling in North Pass, as the passengers watched a group of whales dive and resurface.

The whales began to approach the boat and captain Scotty Davis, a licensed captain for five years, put the craft in reverse, Pitts said.

"He was trying to back away, but just couldn't get backed out of the way soon enough," Pitts said. "When they dove up under the boat, a whale did surface under the boat."

As the whale surfaced, its fluke (or tail) made contact with the starboard side of the boat.

"As far as we can tell, it did not injure the whale," Pitts said. "That's why we have jet boats. If we had any other type of boat, it could have caused an injury to the whale."

Davis reported the incident to the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service, Pitts said. The Coast Guard alerted search and rescue crews, but none responded.

"There was no distress, or any problem that the Coast Guard needed to respond to," Coast Guard spokesman Ray Dwyer said.

National Marine Fisheries Services officials are investigating.

"It wasn't a high-speed strike. It was more too close for comfort," said Doug Mecum, administrator of the Alaska region of NOAA fisheries. "All we can say is that we got a report of this, and we're investigating it, and that's where it sits."

Orca Enterprises canceled the rest of the trip and returned to Auke Bay after the collision. There were 22 people on the boat at the time.

"We brought her back to the dock as soon as the incident happened to get her back for medical attention," Pitts said. "The most important thing was her safety.

"The passengers came in and made statements, and we refunded them. They did have a good trip."

"We promised them humpback viewing and they definitely saw humpbacks."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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