A large fleet of offshore whaling vessels that can carry up to 20 whaling trawlers has been seen circling in the ocean for months.
But now, scientists have found that the boats’ speed can exceed the speed of dolphins.
A team of scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) and the University of New South Wales have identified the boats as the “worse of the two”, a designation they describe as “very similar to that of whales and dolphins”.
The boats, which can weigh up to 200 tonnes, can swim at speeds of up to 22 kilometres per hour (14 mph), according to the scientists.
“In other words, it’s the fastest animal in the water,” Dr Matthew Cocks, an assistant professor in the ANU’s School of Marine and Antarctic Science and the lead author of the paper, told The Australian.
The boats are the largest whaling fleet in the world and, according to Dr Cocks and his team, “we have the potential to have the largest population of dolphins in the whole world”.
They estimate that the fleet is capable of pulling out up to 100 dolphins each year, with up to 150 dolphins in each ship.
The ANU scientists also discovered that the vessels were more vulnerable to collisions with other vessels, which could lead to injury or even death.
“There’s a risk to them being destroyed,” Dr Cock said.
“But we’ve actually been able to take them out of the ocean, and we’ve been able, in fact, to capture them alive.”
According to the researchers, the ships have been operating at high speeds for a long time, since they began operating in the 1970s.
“For the first 30 years or so, they were operated at relatively low speed, which was about 6 to 7 knots,” Dr Nick Lehrmann, one of the researchers and a co-author of the new paper, said.
For the past decade or so they’ve been increasing their speed, Dr Lehrman said, and now they are “running at more than 11 knots”.
“I would expect the speed to increase, and it is increasing.
It’s an increase in the speed that we see from these boats,” he said.
In 2015, Australia’s whaling industry was fined $1.7 million after a crew member was killed by a whale while trying to catch it with a boat that was carrying more than 40 whales.
It is unclear what happens to the dolphins after being captured and released back into the ocean.
Dr Cocking said that the Australian government would need to investigate whether the ships are actually a threat to the whales, and that the researchers would need “some kind of research” to prove it.