To protect sperm whales: Shipping company MSC is changing routes in the Mediterranean

It’s a start. But what a: The world’s largest shipping group, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), is the first major shipping company to relocate its routes along the west coast of Greece.

Why is the change so important? The MSC wants to avoid collisions of its container and cruise ships with sperm whales. Because: More than half of the sperm whales that are washed dead on Greek shores have been victims of such collisions. The imposing marine mammals are considered highly endangered in the eastern Mediterranean, their population is now only 200 to 300 animals.

“The whales found offshore with wounds from propellers or collisions are just the tip of the iceberg. Up to 20 times as many die unnoticed at sea from such collisions and are never recorded. In our regular surveys, we see fewer whales every year, which is very worrying,” explains Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, Scientific Director of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute.

The main cause of death of sperm whales in the Mediterranean is collisions with shipsPhoto: Alexandros Frantzis / Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute

A small, weakened and apparently injured Cuvier’s beaked whale was only found on Friday morning on the outskirts of Athens.

Marine biologist Drossos Koutsoubas of the University of the Aegean told Skai TV the wound looked like a ship’s propeller injury and appeared to be “quite severe”. “In such cases, things usually don’t end well,” added the expert.

The whale lies in waist-deep water on Trocadero Beach in Palio Faliro, a suburb of Athens, Greece, its tail flapping only weakly

The whale lies in waist-deep water on Trocadero Beach in Palio Faliro, a suburb of Athens, Greece, its tail flapping only weaklyPhoto: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP

Change of course saves the Walre

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), OceanCare and WWF Greece are collaborating with the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, which has been studying the sperm whale population in the eastern Mediterranean since 1998.

“Moving the shipping route about seven kilometers to the west dramatically reduces the risk of collision. We are very pleased about MSC’s clear commitment to whale protection,” says Nicolas Entrup, Head of International Cooperation at OceanCare to BILD. “Now we hope that many others will follow this example. It is one of the last chances for survival for sperm whales in the eastern Mediterranean.”

The Hellenic Trench is a key habitat for whales, where they reside year-round. It is also the only area where family groups have been observed so far.

The deep-diving whales live mainly along the 1000-meter depth line, which is about 20 km off the south-west coasts of the Peloponnese and Crete. However, this area is heavily frequented by shipping. A large part of the container ship traffic passes here and cruise ships also use these routes to call at destinations in Greece.

A sperm whale cow with her calf in the Mediterranean Sea

A sperm whale cow with her calf in the Mediterranean SeaPhoto: Alexandros Frantzis / Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute

Sperm whales, known as “Moby Dick”, belong to the group of toothed whales and can dive to depths of 2000 metres. Male sperm whales are up to 16 meters long (some even 20) and weigh up to 41 tons. Females are slightly smaller, averaging 11 meters and 14 tons.

Globally speaking, the sperm whale is considered “endangered”. Due to its geographical isolation, the IUCN Red List estimates the Mediterranean population as “endangered”.

No other whale population in the world is considered to be as threatened by ship collisions as sperm whales. Most collisions are fatal, with some animals sustaining large scars from ship propellers. However, only a very small proportion of ship collisions are recorded at all.

The crew of large ships often does not notice when the ship collides with a whale.


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