A Cleaner, Quieter Way to Watch Whales

An Icelandic firm debuts a battery-powered boat that gets its charge from the wind in the sails.

The schooner Opal cruises the Greenland coast. (Photo: Courtesy North Sailing)

Jul 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

It’s hard to argue against whale watching. The activity gets people out to look at whales rather than hunt them and injects eco-tourist dollars into the economies of cities and towns worldwide.

So all the more painful is the irony that whale-watching vessels can harm the habitat of the animals that eco-tourists want to save. The ships are often diesel-fuel-burning craft that create air, water, and noise pollution—that last a particular problem for marine mammals contending with muddled undersea soundscapes as they try to find food and one another.

An Icelandic whale-watching company believes it has an answer to both problems. In mid-July, Húsavik-based North Sailing relaunched its two-masted schooner Opal with a newly designed, carbon-free electric propulsion system that runs silently and can recharge while the vessel is under sail.

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The system is a “solution to being sustainable, saving some energy, being among the nature and the mammals in the bay as quietly as possible,” said North Sailing managing director Guðbjartur Ellert Jónsson. “Sailing on this boat today, you hear nothing; it’s totally silent.”

The key is a propeller that does double duty. “While you are sailing, you use the wind to move the ship ahead. While it is moving, say at six or seven knots or even more, the water turns the propeller and charges the batteries,” Jónsson said. “There is a computer controlling the power, sending it back and forth, but mainly it is the propeller acting as a generator and loading power into the batteries.”

The new propeller doubles as a generator that charges the propulsion system's batteries. (Photo: Courtesy North Sailing)

Jónsson said the ship could operate for up to 10 hours on battery power without recharging. Although the Opal can run on diesel fuel if necessary, North Sailing believes that this is the first time a vessel has been equipped to rely primarily on battery-powered electric and wind power for propulsion.

The batteries can be recharged on land by plugging the system into Iceland’s power grid, nearly 100 percent of which is supplied by renewable sources.

Bill Hubert of Scarano Boat Building in Albany, New York, finds the Opal’s technology interesting but hopes to learn more about what makes it unique.

Scarano designed and built the schooner America 2.0, which was modeled after a 19th-century schooner but constructed with modern materials. The ship cruises New York’s harbor, letting tourists appreciate the city from the water.

“Looking at their system, it’s more dependent on being a hybrid propulsion, using the diesel motor, which is connected to a generator,” Hubert said. “We have a similar arrangement on the America 2.0: a diesel generator that can operate the motor directly or recharge the batteries.”

As with automobiles, a hybrid of fossil fuel and electric power is not new, he said. “But it’s more recently become used in big vessels like tugboats, not so much that the batteries are there to provide significant propulsion but [to] allow them to greatly reduce emissions from the diesel engine.”

Hubert said spinning the propeller in generator mode likely slows down the ship’s speed under sail, which in turn could affect how long it takes to charge the batteries at sea.

“So for instance, if they normally would sail at 10 knots, now they sail at nine knots because they’re regenerating” the batteries, he said.

“In an ideal sense, it might all work out,” said Hubert. Still, “you can take a long-distance sail, but you can only charge up the batteries you have on the boat,” and you can’t carry so much weight in batteries that it makes the vessel too power-consuming to propel.

“It’s that old adage, ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch,’ ” Hubert said. “But it’s an interesting idea.”

The Opal is now shaking down its new propulsion system on a cruise of Greenland and will tour European ports this fall. “We may take it as far as Africa this winter” and then possibly “cross the Atlantic to the United States,” said Jónsson. “One of our missions is to share [the concept] with people and companies who want to be more efficient and save as much energy as possible.”