Migrating whales to pose hazard for Olympic sailors

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THE CAREFULLY TIMED programme of events for next year's Olympic Games faces disruption from two distinctly different types of uninvited visitor: migrating mammals and passing aeroplanes.

Jets screaming over the Olympic stadium yesterday caused the suspension of a horse-riding competition. The Italian coach was trampled, and is believed to have suffered a broken collarbone.

While this threat from the skies is constant throughout the year, the danger to yachting events caused by migrating whales and dolphins is particularly acute during next September, when the Games are due to take place in Sydney - this is also the peak of the whale migration season.

An indication of the problems that might arise came a week ago, during a regatta in Sydney harbour, when a humpback whale delayed racing for 30 minutes after it cruised into the course. Games officials have now formulated contingency plans after consultation with wildlife and waterways authorities. Air and sea reconnaissance will be carried out to monitor the harbour for any unexpected activity. If necessary, race starts will be shifted, events moved to other courses or perimeters set up around straying whales or dolphins.

Robert Bird, a marine mammal expert, said yesterday: "It's entirely possible for an animal to enter the field of play. The strategies are designed so the event does not impact on the animal. Any time an animal comes into the harbour, National Parks boats will take up position around it to protect it."

The most likely visitors will be humpback and minke whales returning to Antarctica from their warmer breeding grounds off Queensland, further up the east coast of Australia.