The last few years have been rough for the 400-odd remaining Atlantic Right Whales; a once-abundant species that’s never recovered from being hunted almost to extinction. A habitat close enough to shore to coincide with fishing zones and ship traffic lanes means that some die a slow death from tangling in fishing gear while others are wounded by ships’ propellers slicing into their backs, sometimes dying from direct blows. Some people may wonder how a species so finely evolved to detect underwater sound can be so vulnerable, but not me. I learned the hard way during a few adrenaline-filled moments on a Cold War submarine patrol.
On a moonless, flat calm and uniformly black night, the British submarine in which I was serving as a Canadian exchange officer was patrolling slowly at periscope depth. Like any underwater predator, we moved slowly with every sensor on full alert. Only the stubby binocular search periscope protruded a foot or so above the surface, supplemented occasionally by an electronics detection mast, while sensitive hull-mounted sonars listened for the slightest underwater sound that would indicate a ship underway.
As Officer of the Watch I was sitting on the “roundabout”; an electrically-driven seat resembling that of a farm tractor, rotating the periscope with the press of a foot-pedal. It was a challenge to stay alert, peering into monotonous nothingness, checking the elevation dial occasionally to ensure that the periscope was indeed trained where the horizon was supposed to be. The Captain hunched over the dimly red-lit chart table, writing his Night Orders before retiring, while the rest of the Control Room watch were quietly going about their work.
To this day I don’t know what triggered the unease. Blackness in one particular direction just seemed a little blacker than everywhere else. I mentioned this to the Captain who, rather than interrupt my steady search, ordered the longer, thinner attack periscope raised. A lingering look along the suspicious bearing satisfied him that nothing was there: the forward periscope shushed silently back down into its well and I continued my monotonous round. But the nagging feeling simply wouldn’t go away.
A few moments later, a puckering rectum and knotted stomach became just too much. I snapped the handles up, barked out the well-practiced emergency commands – Down periscope; Full ahead together; Flood “Q” (a small forward tank that could be flooded quickly to pull the bow downward) – and ordered the planesman to drive us down to a safe depth. A rude word suggested the Captain’s displeasure but he could only wait until we had levelled out deep enough to pass safely below even the largest of ships. Then, before he could say anything, everyone who had not slept through the commotion could clearly hear the sound of large propellers thrumming directly overhead. A few more seconds of hesitation and we would have been run down by a very large and fast-moving vessel.
Returning cautiously to periscope depth we could see the white stern-light of a huge ship steaming directly away from the spot where we had been barely moments before. The running lights on either side of its bridge were mounted too high to be visible to a periscope only a foot or so above the water, while the mass of its hull had masked the sound of its propellers.
A ship strike on a whale can be ugly. I once served in a Canadian warship in the Pacific, running at high speed, when a dramatic thump shook the hull, followed by the shudder of engines being put full astern. What moments before had been a magnificent creature with a colour not unlike the naval grey of our hull, was now a bloodied shape impaled on the bow. I can only imagine a 2,000 ton submarine with 70 souls on board under the bows of a massive merchantman.
It’s been more than 40 years since that dark night but the lesson remains deeply ingrained – when in doubt, and especially in matters of life and death, go with intuition.