Commentary

Florida boaters clobber rare whale and calf, but they avoid legal consequences

The end of Infinity and its offspring shows why boats need to slow down

June 16, 2022 7:00 am

Biologists measure the carcass of a North American right whale calf killed in a collision with a boat. Credit: Tucker Joenz/Florida FWC, taken under NOAA permit 18786

There’s nothing like a good shipwreck story.

The battle against the elements, the human drama, the deadly consequences — those elements make for some compelling telling. Doesn’t matter whether the story involves the doomed sailors of the USS Indianapolis, the desperate passengers of the SS Poseidon,or the fearless crew of the SS Minnow.

Florida has had so many shipwrecks (some of them accidental, some on purpose) that it’s part of our lore. Early settlers used to cruise the beaches collecting anything useful that washed up from the wreckage — lumber, clothing, even cookware. Once a ship showed up loaded with 20,000 coconuts. Folks planted them, thus giving Palm Beach its name.

A right whale, dubbed Infinity by researchers, was photographed swimming with its calf before the boat collision. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Fisheries permit #20556-01

I heard about a pretty strange shipwreck the other day, a contemporary crash that may lead to a pretty big change for boaters in the St. Augustine area — or ought to. It involved a boat named “About Time.”

The crash happened near dusk on Feb. 12, 2021. A captain and seven passengers were aboard the 54-footer. They were returning from a day of competing at the Northeast Florida Wahoo Shootout.

The boat was doing about 21 knots — 24 mph if you’re a landlubber — as it headed for the Conch House Marina in St. Augustine.

Nearing their destination, in the St. Augustine Inlet, the boat smacked into something — hard. The boat stopped dead in the water. So did whatever it had hit.

Suddenly the “About Time” didn’t have much time. Both its twin engines shut down and the damaged boat began sinking fast. Water poured through a hole a foot wide as automatic alarms screamed.

The captain, Shane Ryan of Ponce Inlet, put out a mayday call and managed to get one of the engines started again after several tries. Thinking fast, he intentionally ran the boat aground in the mud flats off Anastasia Island State Park. That way, it wouldn’t go under. None of the people on board were injured.

When a pair of Florida wildlife officers showed up, the owner of the boat, Dayne Williams of New Smyrna Beach, blurted out, “I think we hit a whale. I saw fins and blood.”

He was right. It wasn’t just any whale, either. It was one of the rarest whales in the world.

And the boaters wouldn’t suffer any penalty at all for killing it — and killing a second whale, too.

Infinity’s offspring

The next day, a dead whale washed ashore on Anastasia Island with “injuries consistent with a vessel strike, including fresh propeller cuts on its back and head, broken ribs, and bruising,” according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records.

Biologists immediately identified it as an endangered North American right whale. Around 350 right whales are all that are left of the species. That’s down by nearly 100 from the 2018 estimate.

There used to be a lot more — thousands of them. Whaling ships of the 1800s nearly wiped them out, harvesting their oil for use in lamps.

Those 19th century whalers gave the species known to scientists as Eubalaena glacialis its common name. They were the “right” whale to hunt because they move slowly, migrate near shore, and stay afloat after death.

Even though those whaling days are over, the remaining right whale population faces other perils. It has continued shrinking faster than a stack of plywood sheets at Home Depot the day before a hurricane hits. I’ll get into why in just a minute.

Florida has lots of endangered and threatened species that live here full-time: panthers, manatees, and Key deer, to name a few. The right whales are part-time residents, but it’s a pretty crucial time when they’re here.

They spend their whole lives in the Atlantic Ocean. Part of the year, they’re found off Canada and New England. Then — not unlike the snowbirds who invade Florida around Thanksgiving and drive around with their cars’ left-turn signal blinking for miles before turning right — some head south for the winter.

From November to April, some right whales swim about 1,000 miles down to warmer waters off Georgia and Florida. That’s where the females give birth to their calves. Once their calves are strong enough, they all swim back north.

The whale that the “About Time” clobbered was one of those calves. It was about a month old and 22 feet long.

A coalition of federal, state, and non-government scientific agencies collaborate to keep an eye on the right whales while they’re calving. The calves are really important to ensuring this species has a future. If a calving season passes with no calves born, everyone freaks out.

The group had spotted this particular calf a few hours before with its mother, a whale known as Infinity. Now it lay dead.

The vanishing

I talked to the biologist who performed what scientists call a “necropsy” on Infinity’s calf. Like an autopsy on a human, it’s an effort to determine the cause of death. Surprisingly, there’s never been a TV crime show about that, the way there has been for pathologists and medical examiners.

In this case, the calf’s death was quick, said Megan Stolen of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Melbourne Beach.

The gashes from the boat’s propeller were the most dramatic injuries. But Stolen’s exam determined that the deadlier damage was done by the blunt force of the boat ramming into the marine mammal.

I asked her if the injuries would have been nearly as severe if the boat had been going slower. She said a slower speed would have helped.

“The force of the boat against that animal is what killed it,” she said. “The blunt force trauma depends on the speed of the vessel.”

Our conversation turned to the calf’s mom. Infinity was, she said, a “known” specimen, one that had been sighted over and over by biologists in recent years.

An injured female right whale called Infinity was observed bearing the scars of a boat collision. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, NOAA permit #20556-01

Three days after the calf turned up dead, an aerial survey team from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium spotted Infinity. The mom was 27 miles off Georgia’s Cumberland Island, heading north at a good clip.

Turns out Infinity had been hit as well.

“We were able to notice that she did appear to be injured,” Melanie White of the Clearwater aerial team told me. “The injuries were similar to that of a propeller strike.”

The wound may have proven just as fatal as those that killed the calf.

“Infinity hasn’t been seen again since that day,” Stolen told me.

If you’re scoring this at home, that’s boaters 2, endangered whales 0.

‘Urgent’ but not really

“But wait,” you say, “you’re going too fast. How did the ‘About Time’ get away with killing not one but TWO endangered animals while zooming through the water?”

Easy. They did nothing that’s been classified as illegal.

This lack of a legal limit wasn’t the result of some dopey oversight, such as the Florida Legislature not outlawing bestiality until 2011 because everyone was too embarrassed to talk about it.

No, this is the fault of the federal agency that’s supposed to be protecting right whales and other marine mammals: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA for short. The agency is, you might say, legally lackadaisical.

NOAA has known for years that — as with Florida’s luckless manatees — boats kill and maim a lot of right whales. Research going as far back as the 1990s shows that, according to Southern Environmental Law Center science and policy analyst Melissa Edmonds (who, I can’t resist noting, was named Melissa Whaling before she recently got married).

The two main causes of death for right whales are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Biologists say the population is so tiny, the loss of even a single whale — especially a breeding-age female — pushes the entire species closer to extinction.

But this NOAA seems to move more slowly than the line of animals waiting to board the ark built by that other Noah.

In 2008, the agency passed a regulation limiting the speed of big cargo vessels in areas along the Atlantic coast where right whales are known to be swimming. But it hasn’t done the same with vessels smaller than 65 feet — in other words, boats the size of the “About Time.”

“They’re not regulated,” Stolen told me.

In its cargo ship rule, NOAA said it would “continue to consider means … to address vessel classes below 65 feet should it become clear these vessels warranted regulation.”

Yet so far, it’s done exactly (wait, let me double-check my math — yep, carry the 2, that’s right) nothing to make those smaller vessels slow down.

“The agency is extremely overdue in publishing a rule to address this threat,” Edmonds told me. “They were supposed to publish a report assessing the effectiveness of the rule by 2019. They didn’t finish it until 2020.”

That 2020 report said that after the speed limit rule took effect on the big ships, most of them actually obeyed it, and deaths went down. Meanwhile, though, “between 1999 and 2012, small vessels were involved in at least 11 collisions with right whales resulting in injuries.”

One of the 2020 recommendations: Impose speed limits on vessels smaller than 65 feet. The report called the need for better rules to protect right whales “urgent.” Maybe the day they published the report was Backwards Day, because the agency has been acting like it’s the opposite of urgent.

Last year, the feds promised to publish a proposed speed limit by this May, then take public comment on it and have a rule in place by December, Edmonds said.

Yet May is now over and we’re halfway through June. Something tells me Santa’s going to get here long before any help for the right whales arrives.

In the most recent three years that NOAA has been dragging its feet on this issue, Edmonds said, “eight whales have died or been seriously injured by vessel strikes. Three of these were calves.”

There’s a scientific theory called “cryptic mortality,” she added, that says that for every right whale that is confirmed dead, there are probably two more that died in the ocean and were not found. That means the number of whales killed while NOAA dithers is likely to be much higher than the official number.

NOAA has not one but two mascots, an owl and a sea lion. I would propose replacing them with the banana slug, one of the slowest creatures on earth.

A new Infinity War

I contacted NOAA to ask why it’s taking so long to put up new speed limit signs around right whale habitat.

The regulatory change is under review by a division of the Office of Management and Budget, according to NOAA spokesperson Katie Wagner. Once it’s done there, the agency “anticipates publishing a notice for the proposed rule in the coming weeks.”

The famous last words, “remain calm, all is well,” were implied, but not stated.

Because of the loooooong delay in official action, the team that watches the calving ground has been trying to persuade the smaller boaters to voluntarily slow down, according to a recent story in FloridaPolitics.com.

I don’t think it’s going well. As we saw with the manatees, some boaters really do not like being told to ease off the throttle.

The “About Time” lies beached following its collision with two right whales. Credit: Mike Alyea/Florida FWC

I base that conclusion on a conversation I had with Shane Ryan, the captain whose boat ended both Infinity’s and its calf’s lives. The crash ended the boat too. The “About Time” was totaled — a $1.2 million loss. It’s now being rebuilt, he told me.

Ryan had never seen a right whale before, and he didn’t see the calf he killed until after he’d hit it. It was a speed bump that seemed invisible under the surface.

When I mentioned dropping the boat speed to save the whales, though, he rejected the idea “100 percent.” I didn’t quite follow his argument, but he contended that a slower boat is more vulnerable to bad weather, and that anyone urging slower speeds was “uneducated.”

“I won’t listen to any speed regulations,” he told me. “I’ll take the ticket. I won’t risk the lives of my passengers to listen to some tree hugger.”

So most likely any effort to regulate boats of less than 65 feet will not be, in the immortal words of Bruno Mars, “smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy.” Maybe it will even touch off a new Infinity War.

But I think it’s worth doing anyway, because the world would be a lot poorer with fewer whales in our ocean.

In the face of this kind of defiance, I think the key is how to encourage reporting and enforcement. My suggestion would be to reward the captains for reporting a strike, the way Ryan did, but to penalize the boat owners for injuries or deaths among the whales.

If a captain hits a right whale and reports it, the captain will get a $1,000 reward. This would ensure that biologists would be able to include that collision in their counting.

Meanwhile, though, the owner of the boat would be penalized commensurate with the price of the boat, multiplied by the number of victims. That means the death of Infinity and its calf would have resulted in a fine for the boat’s owner of $2.4 million.

How’s that for an incentive to slow down?

No matter what NOAA decides, I just wish they’d hurry up. When they finally publish that speed limit, I’m sure everybody, even some boaters, will say, “About time!”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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