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Ferry never got warning of whale sighting before strike

SEATTLE -- Reports of a humpback whale sighting in Seattle last Tuesday never reached Washington State Ferries. Hours later, a ferry heading from Seattle to Bainbridge hit and likely killed a humpback whale.

Shortly after 8 p.m. last Tuesday, passengers on the ferry reported seeing the juvenile humpback surface five to 10 feet in front of the ferry. After the ferry hit the whale going roughly 16 knots, those same passengers watched the whale bleed and struggle before disappearing under water. But that wasn't the first time a humpback had been spotted that day.

Alan "Hobbes" Buchanan, captain and founder of Orca Protection & Rescue, told Q13's Simone Del Rosario that earlier that day, he had contacted both NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard to pass along information about a whale sighting in Seattle, giving them location and details.

NOAA confirmed Buchanan did contact the Office of Law Enforcement and that an officer then reached out to the person who originally saw the whale. According to NOAA, that person reported seeing a small humpback whale moving slowly and possibly entangled in the Shilshole area around 1 p.m.

The information was also reported to the U.S. Coast Guard, which sent out a vessel to search for the whale, unsuccessfully. Hours later, the Coast Guard was back on the water searching for the whale that had been hit.

The Coast Guard can broadcast a "notice to mariners" about living marine mammals in the area, but in response to this instance, the Coast Guard said they typically do not do that unless they have a confirmed location and want mariners to stay away.

The information about the small humpback whale never reached Washington State Ferries. Hours after the original report, the ferry was three minutes into a voyage when it struck a whale.

"There will definitely be future discussions to see how we can work together better and hopefully prevent any future whale strikes," said Lt. Russ Tippets, 13th Coast Guard District, in an email.

Washington State Ferries said they rely on reports of whale sightings from organizations like the Coast Guard, NOAA and Orca Network. They also have designated crew members on each vessel to look for animals or debris when leaving port.

"This system has worked incredibly well in the past and WSF has never had any known vessel collisions with a whale up until last Tuesday," a WSF spokesperson said in a statement. "However, we will analyze this current system and what happened as part of the investigation. It's still too early to surmise what changes could come."

Orca Network regularly communicates whale sightings to WSF, especially when whales are near ferry routes. Ferry employees also consult the group's social media pages for the most up-to-date sightings.

Orca Network founder Howard Garrett said this is an opportunity for others to examine protocols.

"Lesson learned from the sad demise of this little humpback that I think we should, all of us, -- Coast Guard, anyone who sees a whale about to cross a ferry route -- to let the ferries know so that they can keep an eye out and go slow if they need to," Garrett said.

It's impossible to say whether WSF knowing about a whale in the area that day could have changed the outcome. All parties, however, say they are committed to learning any lesson they can from this rare incident to keep it from happening again.

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