Cruise line agrees to $750K fine in collision with whale

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Princess Cruise Lines will pay $750,000 to settle federal charges that a cruise ship hit and killed a humpback whale near Glacier Bay in 2001, according to an agreement approved in U.S. District Court Monday.

As part of the agreement, the cruise line said the ship Dawn Princess had a “close encounter” with two humpback whales in July 200l, but did not admit that the ship actually collided with a whale. The cruise line said it was guilty of failing to operate its vessel in at a “slow, safe speed” while near the humpback, but had implemented new safety procedures.

The company will pay a $200,000 fine to the government and $550,000 to the National Park Service Foundation. The Park Service money will go to an account for Glacier Bay National Park, to be used for whale research and conservation efforts.

Tomie Lee, superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park, said in a statement she was satisfied with the agreement.

“… we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment,” the statement said. “We are glad that this incident is behind us.”

Since the 2001 incident, Princess instituted speed regulations for its ships around Icy Strait, near the entrance to the bay, and has put ship captains through “whale avoidance training, ” the cruise line said.

The plea agreement provided some new details from the investigation into the incident on July, 12, 2001. Late in the afternoon, two whales were first spotted about 700 yards away from the Dawn Princess, headed right toward the 856-foot ship, according to witness accounts in the agreement.

The whales dove and surfaced, continuing toward the cruise ship. The ship continued accelerating and did not change course. Within 100 yards of the ship one whale made a deep dive. The other did not. “Just before passing out of sight under the vessel’s prow, the second whale appeared to begin a terminal dive,” the plea agreement read.

Some people onboard reported feeling the ship shudder. A naturalist onboard said that friends below deck said they heard “a resounding thud.”

The vessel did not report the possible collision to the National Park Service, according to the agreement.

The dead, 45-foot female humpback was discovered in the water near the mouth of Glacier Bay four days later. A necropsy showed the animal died of massive skull fractures, which an expert said was consistent with vessel collision, the agreement said. It was pregnant at the time. A distinctive marking on its fluke indicated it was a whale known to scientists as “Snow,” first sighted in Seymour Canal in 1975.

Humpback whales are an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act and by the state of Alaska. The North Pacific population feeds in northern waters from California to Alaska’s Chukchi Sea in the summer, and winters in tropical waters off Hawaii and Mexico. Their current population worldwide is 20,000, with 6,000 migrating to Alaska waters.

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