There are recent documented reports of whales breaching directly onto boats causing significant damage to the vessel and in some instances, injury to people on board. But, the most notorious whale encounter happened nearly two centuries ago and led to the gruesome deaths of 13 sailors. Whale ship strikes are a common event in shipping lanes around the world, but there is little consistency in reports of such events. Many whale strikes even go unnoticed by captains and crews of enormous oceangoing vessels.
In 1820, the whaling ship Essex was attacked twice by an angry sperm whale equal in length to the ship. As the ship sank, the crew took refuge in three small boats. For 95 days, the survivors struggled with starvation, dehydration and deprivation. One boat was lost and the fate of the sailors remains a mystery. Eight of the 21 original crew members survived in large part because they cannibalized the dead and in one case even drew lots and executed one of their own to feed on his blood and body. Three crew members were abandoned on a desert island, and they too were rescued. At least two members of the ill-fated voyage left written records of their ordeal and tales of the incident were part of the inspiration for Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.” Mocha Dick, an enormous albino whale that is known to have attacked 20 whaling boats, was the other legendary cetacean that served as inspiration for Melville’s epic tale.
In 2009, a custom made yacht for the team “Bad Company” competing in a high-stakes fishing tournament collided with a breaching whale causing major damage to the vessel. The captain, Steve Lassley, said that the whale appeared to be jumping toward the vessel at the time of the impact. Fortunately, the crew was able to use pumps to keep incoming water from sinking the ship before they could return safely to dock. The condition of the whale after the incident remains unknown.
In July 2010, a young whale crash-landed onto the sailing yacht Intrepid off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The incident was caught on video and in still shots from onlookers aboard nearby whale-watching vessels. Witnesses shared that there were an unusual number of whales breaching the area near the time of the encounter. The 33-foot yacht sustained serious damage to its mast and deck, but the two people on board at the time were uninjured. The whale was apparently uninjured and swam off after slipping back into the sea.
A humpback whale about 30 feet in length landed on the 38-foot sailboat L’Orca during the Oregon International Offshore Race in May 2011. Though the breaching whale crushed the mast of the boat and caused significant damage to the rigging and deck, no one on board was injured. The whale fell back into the sea and the extent of its injuries is unknown.
In 2012, Max Young, 66, was solo on the last leg of a voyage around the world in his 50-foot cutter, Reflections, when he collided with a breaching whale near La Playa, Mexico. The cutter sustained serious damage and began to sink. Young was able to activate an emergency beacon which alerted the Coast Guard who in turn asked a nearby merchant ship to assist the troubled sailor. He was rescued unharmed but his boat was a loss.
In 2012, three men were injured when a whale landed on their motor boat as they were cruising near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. According to their reports, the whale jumped out of the water and landed on their boat for no apparent reason. The boat, along with the men on board, went underwater at which time the whale sank back into the ocean and swam off before the men and boat resurfaced. They were quickly rescued by nearby boaters and taken to area hospitals to be treated for their injuries.
In 2004, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-25 that detailed 292 incidents of known or supposed large whale ship strikes based on vessel reports and recovery of dead whales with obvious ship strike trauma from 1975 through 2002. For the purposes of this report, all vessels were classified as ships whether they were cargo tankers, fishing boats or whale watching vessels. The data indicates that whale and ship encounters are not uncommon, but many go unnoticed and unreported by captain and crew.
- Today I Found Out: A Sperm Whale Destroys Essex, an Event that Partly Inspired the Novel Moby Dick
- This Day in History: American Vessel Sunk by Sperm Whale
- Boat Test: Viking 60 Attacked By Breaching Whale!
- Today I Found Out: A Real Life White Whale that Destroyed Over 20 Whaling Ships and Survived Encounters with Another 80
- CNN World: Breaching Whale Crash-lands on Sailboat
- The Guardian: Would a Whale Deliberately Destroy a Yacht?
- Los Angeles Times: Breaching Whale Damages Sailboat Off Oregon
- Sail World: Whale collision sinks boat on final leg of around-world voyage
- NOAA: Large Whale Ship Strike Database
- Yachting and Boating World: Breaching Whale Lands on Motor Boat
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Jenny Newberry, a former teacher with 25 years of experience, is a professional writer and photographer and holds a B.S. and a M.Ed. in elementary and special education from the University of South Alabama. She is also a history buff, praise and worship pianist, pet enthusiast, avid crafter and hobby gardener.