Humpback whale likely dead after it was hit by ferry near Seattle

"At 5 to 10 feet, there’s no chance to even try to maneuver the vessel," the director of operations for the Washington state ferries system said.

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By Phil Helsel

The whale struck by a Seattle-area ferry Tuesday was thought to have been a juvenile humpback whale and likely did not survive, an official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

The animal was hit about three minutes into the Wenatchee ferry's 8:15 p.m. run from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, west of the city. The ferry struck the whale that was reported to have breached around 5 to 10 feet in front of the vessel in Elliott Bay, officials said.

The crew of the Wenatchee was not aware the ferry had hit a whale until passengers alerted them, Gregory Faust, state ferries director of marine operations, told reporters Wednesday.

Even if they had seen the whale, the ferry would not have been able to stop in time, Faust said. The ferry was traveling approximately 17 mph, Dana Warr, a spokesperson for Washington State Ferries, has said.

"It takes a little over a minute to go from full ahead to a full stop in the water," Faust said. "And at 5 to 10 feet, there's no chance to even try to maneuver the vessel."

Faust described the strike as an extremely rare occurrence and said that the department has been unable to find any records of a whale or other marine mammal being struck by a state ferry. He said that if the ferry system receives reports of whales in the area, the ferries slow down, but "there were no reports of whales in the area yesterday."

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"They're, you know, extremely remorseful and feel horrible about the situation, as we all do," Faust said of the crew.

NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said in an email Wednesday that the whale was a juvenile humpback whale. A witness had told NBC affiliate KING of Seattle Tuesday that they thought the whale that was hit was a gray whale.

While the incident is under investigation "Based on information provided by passengers it is likely the strike was fatal," Milstein said.

Faust said passengers reported that they saw a whale surface in front of the ferry and a blood trail behind the vessel. There were no injuries to anyone on board the ferry.

The Washington state ferry Wenatchee operates across Puget Sound from Seattle on Dec. 15, 2008.AP file

Of 23 recorded ship strikes in Washington State involving whales since 2000, only two involved humpback whales, Milstein said.

Humpback whales are thought to live between 80 to 90 years, and they can reach about 60 feet in length and weigh up to 40 tons, according to NOAA’s website.

One population breeds along the Pacific Coast of Central America and feeds off the west coast of the United States and southern British Columbia, which is near Seattle, according to NOAA.

Humpback whales are vulnerable to inadvertent vessel strikes, and the risk to the marine mammals is much higher in coastal areas with heavy ship traffic, the agency says.

"It's such an odd occurrence that that whale would decide to breach right in front of a ferry — it's just, it's a million-in-one shot," Faust said.

The ferries system is conducting an investigation, but Faust said there was a lookout watching for marine traffic at the time, but did not see the whale.

The crew felt a "vibration," which can be felt when a vessel hits a log, but by the time the crew was informed of the whale strike the vessel was already on its way, and it continued on its route, Faust said. Crew immediately reported the strike to the Coast Guard and NOAA and the operations center, he said.

"I don't know that there's anything else that they could have done," he said of the crew.