Cruise ship drags dead whale into New York, prompting investigation

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A cruise ship arrived in New York Harbor with a dead sei whale pinned to its bow, a revelation that has spawned a federal investigation and has led biologists to examine the whale’s carcass to determine the cause of death.

The MSC Meraviglia was returning Saturday from a Bermuda cruise when it sailed into the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal with the 44-foot-long sei whale affixed to its front. MSC, a Geneva-based cruise line, confirmed the incident “with deep regret” in a statement and said it had immediately notified authorities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating.

On Wednesday, the whale was towed to Sandy Hook, N.J., for a necropsy. According to NOAA, officials discovered broken bones in the right flipper, tissue trauma in the right shoulder blade region and a belly full of food. Biologists took samples for biotoxin and histopathologic analyses. NOAA spokeswoman Andrea Gomez said the tissue and bone samples can help biologists determine whether the whale died before the collision with the ship or because of it.

The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society is leading the whale examination. Results from the exam could take days to weeks, said Kathleen Collins, senior marine campaign manager with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Based on the findings released so far, Andy Rogan, science manager at Ocean Alliance, a whale research and conservation nonprofit, said the cruise ship probably caused the whale’s demise. If so, it would have been a sudden death.

“Whales are huge animals, but compared to a ship that size, it’s still a massive impact. So much weight and power is hitting that whale,” he said. “It’s almost certain that a ship strike killed that whale.”

According to NOAA, vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the biggest threats to sei whales, an endangered species that inhabits deeper waters off the coastline. Population figures are elusive, but NOAA documented roughly 6,300 sei whales between Florida and Nova Scotia from 2010 to 2013.

Sei whales are feeding during this time of year, and Collins said the whales eat on the surface, placing them in the potential bull’s eye for collisions with a ship’s bow. She said crew members and passengers might not have felt the bump because of the ship’s size. The MSC Meraviglia weighs 171,598 tons; sei whales weigh up to 50 tons.

“It really is a tragic case where this strike likely happened and everyone was oblivious until they came into port,” Collins said. “They likely don’t even know exactly where they struck the whale, either.”

NOAA urges boaters operating along the East Coast to cruise slowly, stay alert and report any sightings of right whales or dead, injured or entangled whales. In its statement, MSC said it follows comprehensive measures to avoid accidents with marine life, such as training deck officers with the Ocean Research & Conservation Association and adjusting itineraries in regions populated by whales.

Collins said voluntarily reducing vessel speeds can help avoid run-ins. However, she said, cruise ships and large tankers prefer to move briskly because they are on tight schedules.

Macinzie McFarland, a spokesperson for Cruise Lines International Association, said in an email that cruise ships take several measures to protect marine mammals, including whale observation training for crews and reducing vessel speed.

“The chance of mortality with a vessel strike goes down pretty substantially as you reduce the vessel speed,” Collins said.

Cruise lines also rely on technology such as underwater radiated noise management systems and specially designed hulls, propellers and noise suppression devices that minimize underwater vibrations. .

Marine outlets, agencies such as the Coast Guard and the Whale Alert app share information about whale sightings and locations.

Rogan said there is no “silver bullet” for ships to avoid whales, but advances in technology can help lower the threat. He said hydrophones can pick up whale acoustics, information that NOAA could then disseminate to vessels. At a recent workshop, Rogan said, he learned about infrared cameras that can detect whales within a 360-degree range, particularly in front of a vessel.

Rogan urged the public Thursday to share its outrage about the incident with government agencies and with the cruise line. Collins said she hoped the incident would inspire the cruise industry to act as a better steward in the waters it shares with vulnerable marine life.

The MSC Meraviglia, she noted, is headed next to Canada, a critical ground for North Atlantic right whales, including mothers and their newborn calves.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the maximum weight of sei whales. It is 50 tons, not 10 tons. The article has been corrected.

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