Whale Strike Causes PR Storm for Round the World Yacht Race

A report by Jérôme Val on Public talk radio station France Inter about a whale strike during a round the world yacht race reveals how international public opinion is forcing sporting events and competitors to take the issue of animal conservation increasingly seriously.

Article source: "Vendée Globe : 'Nous ne voulons pas passer pour des tueurs de baleines' ", by Jérôme Val, France Inter, 9/12/2020.

On Sunday, Spanish yachtsman Didac Costa, a competitor in the Vendée Globe round the world race, revealed that he collided with a UFO, an unidentified floating object… but not just any UFO, a living one. “Around 15:30 this afternoon, One Planet One Ocean has suffered a collision with a whale. Neither the boat nor the skipper have suffered any harm,” explained Costa’s team. A few hours later, after receiving numerous comments from furious animal rights activists on social media, the team posted an update on the whale’s well-being. Many of you are concerned about the health of the whale. According to Didac, there was no blood in the water and he saw it swimming and breathing normally. So we hope she is ok and recovers soon from the shock!”

Taboo Subject

Such honesty from a yachtsman is rather rare. Before he embarked upon this solo round the world race, one of the competitors, Fabrice Amedeo, sailing on a “Newrest - Art & Fenêtres” monohull, described it as a “real taboo subject”. Many sailors prefer to use the term UFO when talking about a collision, as it is quite vague, rather than saying that they collided with a whale, which can be fatal for the animal. The optics aren’t great. “We don’t want to be seen as whale-murderers,” added Amadeo. It should be noted that whales are haemophiliacs and the slightest of cuts can lead to their death.

"We shouldn't look the other way"

However, race director Jacques Caraës stated : “I believe we shouldn't look the other way. We shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand by calling them UFOs. There are many things floating in the water but there’s also a whole ecosystem that belongs there. We disturb it by sailing on increasingly faster boats once every four years.”

It is impossible to avoid marine mammals’ migration routes when sailing around the world. There are several devices that can reduce the collision risk, such as the ‘pinger’ known as Whale Shield. “It is an ultrasound device that is fixed to the end of the keel,” explained Fabrice Amedeo, one of the first sailors to have used it on his monohull. “It emits a signal that is supposed to scare off whales and keep them out of our path.”

89 Species of Cetacean

Fabrice Amedeo worked with a bioacoustics expert who specializes in the acoustic signals of cetaceans. “It is a complicated issue as there are 89 species of cetacean,” pointed out Olivier Adam, a professor at Sorbonne University.

“Each species behaves differently,” he continued, “some react positively and will approach vessels. Others are scared and will move away. The problem should be addressed on a case-by-case basis.” 

Jacques Caraës is calling for the subject to be taken very seriously: “For some time now, we have been trying to get in contact with experts on cetacean migration. In the near future, we may be required to include people like these on our teams. They would be able to give us a warning like: ‘such and such a yacht is in danger of entering a migration zone’.”

Danger

Colliding with  large marine animals not only affects the environment, but also endangers both the yachtsmens and their yachts. Four years ago, during the last Vendée Globe race, Kito de Pavant, a sailor from the South of France, had an encounter with a sperm whale. As a result, his boat’s keel was ripped off and he had to be rescued by a French navy vessel.

Translated by Chloé Letellier and Charlotte Hebbourn

Editing by Sam Trainor

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