Speed limit cut to save humpbacks

Recent whale death highlights need for slower boat traffic in Glacier Bay

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2001

In the wake of the killing of a humpback whale by a large ship, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has limited the speed of vessels in part of the park.

Superintendent Tomi Lee recently set a 10-knot maximum speed for vessels traveling between Rush Point, about 6 miles north of the entrance to the bay, through lower Whidbey Passage, about another 10 miles north. The slow speed is intended to protect humpbacks in the area.

The limited speed area overlaps with regular Lower Bay and Whidbey Passage whale waters where vessels longer than 18 feet are required to maintain a mid-channel course. Although such course restrictions are typically lifted after Aug. 31, they will remain in place until further notice.

The body of an adult female humpback was found

floating July 16 in Icy Strait near Ancon Rock, near the entrance to Glacier Bay and 55 miles northwest of Juneau. A leading whale forensic specialist determined the cause of death was a severe blow to its head by "a large vessel," probably a cruise ship. The pregnant whale, first sighted as an adult in 1979 in Glacier Bay, was thought to be the first humpback to die of unnatural causes there.

"This is a general speed restriction that we put into effect any time we have congregations of whales in the Bay," Chuck Young, chief ranger for Glacier Bay Park, said today. "It is indirectly related to (the death of the female humpback), but we do this every year."

The whale waters area where the speed limit applies is defined by an imaginary line extending from the southern tip of Willoughby Island to the Rush Point buoy; and an imaginary line extending from the northern tip of Willoughby Island west to the mainland shore north of Fingers Bay.

At least five humpbacks have been sighted repeatedly in the area since Aug. 18. The frequency of the sightings suggests the area is an important feeding ground for humpbacks. The 10-knot speed limit is intended to minimize interruptions of feeding whales and to lower the risk of whale-vessel collisions, park officials said.

Park investigators have said they are talking to passengers from Princess Cruises ships who might have information about the collision that killed the whale in July.

"This is an area west of where Princess usually sails, an area we typically don't use," said Kirby Day, spokesman for Princess Cruises. "But we would adhere to their guidelines if we did use this area. This is not out of the ordinary. They often send advisories to cruise lines and boat operators about speed limits where there are concentrations of whales."

Boaters are advised to verify whale-water designations prior to entering Glacier Bay by calling (907) 697-2627 or contacting KWM20 Bartlett Cove on marine VHF radio.

For details, call Lee at (907) 697-2230.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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