I knew if I didn’t get that port-side motor going and us moving, we were going to sink.
Capt. Shane Ryan had spent a lifetime boating and fishing off the Florida coast. But in all his years, he had never had a moving boat stopped dead in the water. And a 54-foot sportfisher topping 20 knots?
“I didn’t think it was possible,” said Ryan, 48.
At nightfall on Feb. 12, 2021, the impossible happened when the million-dollar boat he was driving – named About Time – hit a right whale calf and its mother a half-mile out of the St. Augustine inlet. The collision, which no one saw coming, would prove tragic for the whales and the boat.
North Atlantic right whales are one of Earth’s rarest whales. There are fewer than 350 left. Each winter, many in that remnant migrate 1,000 miles from the northeastern U.S. and Canada to the Southeast. The warmer waters off Georgia, north Florida and South Carolina are the only known place where right whales give birth.
A century ago, whalers almost wiped out these gentle giants, which can reach the size of a semi-trailer and top 50 tons. Today, the leading threats are vessel strikes and entanglement in rope from lobster, snow crab and other commercial fishing gear. Federal protections include seasonal speed limits for vessels 65 feet and longer. Yet run-ins with smaller boats also have taken a toll.
Since 2005, there have been at least five incidents of recreational boats colliding with right whales in the Southeast. Those include a 43-foot Grand Banks off Georgia in 2005 – the adult female whale later died – and a 30-foot Pursuit off South Carolina in 2009, which left more than $100,000 in damages and the whale’s status unknown.
But these are only the boat strikes reported. Injuries and scars on right whales point to more.
The 54-foot About Time would become the latest.
Coming into St. Augustine
Ryan had captained the custom-built Jarrett Bay for five years. On Feb. 12, his party of eight was returning to the Conch House Marina in St. Augustine after a day of wahoo fishing offshore. They ran through a squall 18 miles out. On the other side, the ocean was calm.
The setting sun turned the rim of land ahead into a bright line and the water behind the boat black.
With its twin 1,000-horsepower engines trimmed, About Time was making about 21 knots, or 24 mph. A few miles from St. Augustine, Ryan switched into his near-land mode: on the wheel and using radar to hug the navigable line that larger vessels follow when entering the inlet.
Ryan and a crewmate also scanned the water, partly from experience – outgoing tides tend to flush debris from inlets (he once dodged a 20-foot wood piling torn free by a hurricane) – partly because caution goes with the job.
“As a captain, you’re in charge of lives, the vessel, the safety of everybody and everything.”
A month earlier, right whale no. 3230 had been spotted with a calf off Amelia Island, Fla. It was the first calf for the 19-year-old whale nicknamed “Infinity.”
By Feb. 12, the two had been seen earlier in the day north of St. Augustine inlet.
As Ryan steered down the channel that evening, the mom and calf were in his path.
What Was That?
The About Time hit them with a thud just before 6:30 p.m. The collision flung the men forward and pushed the back of the 54,000-pound boat out of the water. Both motors shut down. Piercing high-water and motor alarms sounded.
Ryan yelled for the mate to find where the water was coming in as he mentally sifted what they might have hit. Jetty rocks? (Check the chart plotter – no.) A piling? (But such an impact.) Then what?
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation, one occupant saw a large object and “fins and blood” in the water behind the boat. There was no time to make a positive ID, but he recalled saying, “I think we hit a whale.”
Onboard, the focus was keeping the boat afloat. The impact had tomahawked the strut of the right or starboard propeller into the hull. Water poured through a foot-wide hole in the engine room. Ryan knew he couldn’t quickly plug an opening that big.
And there was damage he couldn’t see. Unaware of the extent, he made a Mayday call to the U.S. Coast Guard – “Hit an object in the inlet … Taking on water fast” – cranked the motors and slipped the boat into forward. Immediately, the starboard propeller began whopping into the hull. The drive shaft had also been bent upward.
Both engines died again. The About Time settled deeper into the Atlantic. “I knew if I didn’t get that port-side motor going and us moving, we were going to sink,” Ryan said.
It took seven tries. Crank the motor. Ease the throttle forward. Transmission shudders. Motor bogs out. Try again. Inch the RPMs up. Find a speed where the crippled motor and transmission still sync.
Ryan also had a crew member open the “tuna door.” The door near the water-level on the boat’s stern is used for landing large fish. But with it open and the boat moving steadily forward, water began to drain out.
Although radioing with the Coast Guard, Ryan said it was not clear where to go. He remembered a mudflat inside the jetty. As the boat “shook like crazy,” he steered for it to avoid sinking.
“Forced with the decision to put a vessel you spend your life taking care of on a dang mudflat in the middle of the St. Augustine inlet … it sucks. It 100 percent sucks,” he would say months later, his frustration still evident.
In the Collision’s Wake
The next morning, the calf lay dead on a beach at Anastasia State Park, which borders the inlet. The propellers had sliced deep into the calf’s back and head, fracturing its skull.
Infinity was spotted alive days later but with fresh cuts on her side. The wound pattern on both whales suggests they were swimming together when hit, said Tom Pitchford, a Florida FWC biologist. Infinity has not been seen since.
Federal and state investigations reported no violations. The About Time was a total loss, at $1.2 million.
While Ryan agrees with the critical need to conserve right whales, he said from his perspective as a captain, the collision was simply wrong time, wrong place.
However, following the incident the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, FWC and NOAA redoubled efforts to inform recreational boaters about right whales and precautions to help avoid them.
DNR senior wildlife biologist Clay George said researchers recognize that right whales are not only rare but can be extremely difficult to see. They have a low profile and often are just at or below the surface.
“Even the most experienced, well-intentioned boater can hit a whale,” George said. “But there are ways to lower your risk, like slowing down, especially when visibility is poor and when whales are in the area.”
Ryan, who spoke with DNR to help raise boater awareness regarding right whales, welcomed word of the options for sighting updates. Although a Florida native and lifelong saltwater angler, he said he had never seen a North Atlantic right whale before.
His first was something he nor others on the About Time that February evening will forget.
What Boaters Can Do
“Go Slow – Whales Below!” recommendations:
- Slow down. It may give a boat operator time to react.
- Post a lookout. Watch for black objects, whitewater and splashes.
- Avoid boating in the dark, in rough seas or otherwise when visibility is poor.
- Use the Whale Alert app and consult the WhaleMap website to know if whales are possibly in the area.
- Keep at least 500 yards from right whales (it’s the law) and report whale sightings and collisions immediately to the Coast Guard on marine VHF Ch. 16 or call 1-877-WHALE-HELP (942-5343).
Also see: additional information from NOAA
S.C. Incident: ‘Run Aground’ in 50 Feet of Water
On March 31, 2009, Mike and Carol Price were on their 30-foot Pursuit Express Glory Days near Hilton Head, S.C. They were going 23 knots on a calm ocean.
“All of a sudden,” Mike writes, “it felt like we had run aground but we were in 50 feet of water. There was a loud bang and the boat shuddered violently. Carol was thrown through the air and landed in the cockpit. I throttled back immediately and looked back to see what we hit but I couldn’t see anything.”
In the engine room, water looked like it was “shooting from a fire hose.” Mike called in a Mayday and rushed to get their life raft and EPIRB.
“As I looked up, I saw a whale surface about 50 yards from the boat,” he said. It was “at least as big as the boat” and bleeding. It was a North Atlantic right whale.
A Coast Guard helicopter arrived in minutes. A fishing charter boat also responded. The Glory Days looked like it was going down. But they managed to plug the hole and pump the water out.
The boat sustained more than $100,000 in damages. How the whale fared is still unknown.
Days after the collision, Mike wrote, “It is certainly a wake-up call that anything can happen at any time in the ocean.”