Protecting the ocean and all that exists in it, for the health of people and planet, has long been a passion for Damian Foxall. Having dedicated the last ten years of his career to conservation and ocean health, the Irishman has ‘walked the talk’ as he raced from Itajaí, Brazil, to the home of 11th Hour Racing, Newport, Rhode Island, U.S., onboard Mālama in Leg 4 of The Ocean Race.
Because for the past two years, Foxall, a seven-time veteran of the round-the-world race, with over 450,000 nautical miles of racing under his belt, has been working with IMOCA, The Ocean Race, World Sailing, and other marine and science organizations to implement important changes within the sport of sailing. These changes will ensure that the ocean he and his fellow competitors race through is safer for the marine mammals that inhabit it.
“As offshore sailors, we are in a privileged position to race through some of the most beautiful, natural, and important environments on the planet. We need to share the understanding, throughout the marine community, that we are not ‘just’ ocean users – we have to be ‘ocean stewards’. By making this shift, we will then be able to take on the collective responsibility of making it safe for marine mammals.
“This is not just about avoiding marine mammal strikes, it is about respecting what the marine mammals do for us all – they play a crucial role in the lifecycle of the ocean, and their migratory and feeding habits directly affect ocean health on a global scale. And that, ultimately, affects the health of you and me,” Foxall concluded.
Foxall is part of the Marine Mammal Advisory Group (MMAG) – which includes representation from The Ocean Race, IMOCA, and the marine science community – and also leads 11th Hour Racing Team’s sustainability work. The team has previously published marine mammal strike mitigation best practices – which include sharing the location of a strike or near miss with other vessels, reporting a marine mammal strike (anonymously if desired) to the International Whaling Commission, and working with race organizers to plan race courses which avoid important feeding or migratory routes.
Collisions with floating objects and marine animals are an unfortunate occurrence in the sailing sector, and the large majority of these encounters include marine megafauna and whales. According to the strike log maintained by the MMAG, which collates data from the International Whale Commission, media reports, and one-to-one surveys from the sailing community, of the 350 submissions so far, between 50% and 60% of all collisions reported result in damage to the vessel as well as injury or death to the animal.
While this is only a small percentage of the annual global ship strikes, the scale of these incidents from the sailing sector largely goes unreported because, unlike the shipping sector, there is no requirement for systematic reporting for strikes at sea within the sailing world, so they often only appear in the news cycle when they impact a boat’s sporting performance.
Building the global strike log database is key to improving the effectiveness of the race course risk assessment process as well as understanding where the hot spots are that need to be avoided. With a significant part of the input coming from one-on-one interviews with the sailing community, the MMAG is requesting all sailors who have experienced a collision or strike at sea to share the details with the International Whaling Commission strike database, or to contact Damian directly.
The MMAG is driving forward the implementation of new Marine Mammal Standards for sailors and sailing events, seeking to have them endorsed by World Sailing. The expectation is that all sailing events – whether round-the-world races like The Ocean Race, or inshore dinghy regattas – will adopt them, supporting the ongoing sustainability work by the sport’s governing body – World Sailing.
The five recommendations are:
S – Source and share information
C – Course risk assessment as standard
O – Observe and report live
P – Push for technological developments
E – Encourage citizen science
The Ocean Race is invested in this process, and have commissioned the organization Share the Ocean, to provide a detailed risk assessment for each leg of the race. The assessment uses global marine mammal distribution data and models this with the fleet’s route to make an assessment of any potential interaction, allowing the event to establish specific exclusion zones on the race course where relevant.
During The Ocean Race Skippers’ Briefing, normally two days before the Leg start, a section is dedicated to making the sailors aware of the habitats they are sailing through or near and identifying any ‘no-sail’ exclusion zones. Then when the teams are racing they are all obliged to report any marine mammal sighting or incidents to Race Control – a key element to ensure that a risk observed by one boat is immediately shared with the rest of the fleet.
Making reporting easy is key to ensuring it happens in a timely manner, and a new innovation supported by The Ocean Race, IMOCA, and 11th Hour Racing Team is the Hazard Button, tested by the team during the last leg from Brazil, on their Expedition navigation software. The hazard button works in a very simple way: in the event of seeing an obstacle in the water – whether it is a partially submerged container, a log, or a marine mammal – the sailors can tap the Hazard button on the screen, which logs the position, immediately informing the rest of the fleet to keep a close watch. This technology has now been adopted and further optimized by the other navigation system popular with the IMOCA fleet – Adrena.
Onboard 11th Hour Racing Team’s IMOCA, Mālama, the observation role is taken on by the onboard media crew member, Amory Ross.
“In the event of a marine mammal sighting, I take the responsibility of documenting the location, if possible the species, share any identifiable features, color patterns, and fin and tail shape and size, as well as spout patterns,” commented Ross.
“As well as pressing the hazard button to inform those around us, as close as possible to the time of the sighting, I send this to the relevant authorities from the boat at the time of the sighting. In addition, our onboard camera system records the previous three minutes allowing us to capture observations live. I’ll also always try to fly the drone to take video and photos of the mammals’ behavior and share these as well.”
While technological advancements are hoped to minimize marine mammal strikes, there is no single solution for complete avoidance.
“There is no one-stop-shop, but rather a list of various actions that can mitigate the risk to mammals, boats, and sailors,” commented Foxall. “Seafarers are the eyes and ears of the scientific community, so by sharing your observations with the relevant organizations, we can build a better understanding of ocean life and use this knowledge to inform, adapt, and revise the way we interact with the ocean and all that exists in it.”
To support sailors, event organizers, and federations, 11th Hour Racing Team has prepared quick-check guides on what they can do to prepare themselves before heading to sea.
- Prepare your watch-keeping systems
- Invest in available technology
- Research the species and sensitive habitats you will encounter while sailing
- Understand the relevant maritime regulations and restricted areas
- Establish a protocol for reacting to hazards and incidents
- Report your citizen science observations
- Understand the biodiversity in the area your event will be held
- Plan ahead and source the latest data for your risk assessments
- Implement mitigation procedures by modifying race courses, event dates
- Share the on-course expectations for the sailors and the event race control
- Brief your participants on potential hazards and expectations on how they will react to incidents
- Provide a reporting platform for participants that enables the fleet to send and receive hazard reports as close to real-time as possible
- Collate and report back to the International Whale Commission post-event
- Adopt best practice guidelines from World Sailing
- Provide protocol for inshore and offshore events
- Require post-event biodiversity reporting
- Support with time and investment the development of systems and information sharing
- Collaborate with other stakeholders on the creation of a central hazard-reporting platform
- Build solutions with other stakeholders within the industry
Currently, each IMOCA competing in The Ocean Race uses the SEA.AI system [formerly OSCAR], which detects floating objects early, using thermal and optical cameras to catch objects that can escape conventional systems such as Radar or AIS. These objects aren’t just marine mammals, they could include unsignalled crafts, floating obstacles, containers, buoys, inflatables, kayaks, and even persons overboard. The system comprises three cameras, two of which are thermal cameras linked to an advanced artificial intelligence program, making it possible to detect an object measuring from four up to 600 meters in front of the boat.
Damian works hand-in-hand with Claire Vayer, the Sustainability Manager for IMOCA, and she plays a leading role in supporting the development of this multifaceted approach to improved watchkeeping, reporting, and risk assessment.
“The IMOCA Class has been working with a cohort of organizations to develop an interface to combine a better range of watchkeeping technologies, particularly as ocean racing boats are pushed from a performance perspective and as speeds increase. Onboard technology like SEA.AI and the hazard buttons are an excellent start, but further work is needed to integrate systems that can monitor below the surface of the vessel’s path,” shared Claire.
“We are working hard to change behavior, ensure good inshore practices, and educate sailors to work together on this,” she concluded.
The passion, vision, and expertise of people like Damian, Claire, and their wider supporters within the international offshore sailing community have allowed the discussions around marine mammal protection to be welcomed and supported at the very highest levels of the sport.
This will ensure that the ocean, its ecosystem, and all that lives in it, are being looked after by those that love and use it the most.
To find out how you can be part of this important work, Damian welcomes direct contact.