Back in the summer of this year there were some exciting and also tragic occurrences taking place in the depths of the Santa Monica Bay and its neighboring waters. Blue whales, the largest living mammal and an endangered species, in greater numbers than anyone could remember seeing, were being spotted all over the place.
While usually sighted mostly in the Channel Islands area, they were popping up in the Santa Monica Bay and quite a bit in Long Beach waters as well. Whale watching boats cashed in, scientists compiled more data and many recreational boaters had stories to tell of the never-ending “conveyor belt” of blubber they saw while cruising on a day trip.
But in September, the excitement and exuberance of witnessing such a special creature — the largest animal that has ever inhabited the planet — turned sour when three young blues, not yet fully grown, turned up dead in Southern California waters in three separate instances.
Beyond the dispiriting fact that there are speculated to be under 10,000 of these animals left in the world and losing three young whales is obviously bad news, the other concerning factor was how close together the deaths were.
In two weeks there were three strandings, two in Ventura and one in Long Beach. Prior to that there had only been six official reports of strandings since 1980.
The cause of death in all three situations was related to collisions with large cargo ships, according to scientists at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where a necropsy was performed.
“It’s our conclusion, based on all the evidence from the necropsy and any other results, that they died from strictly a ship strike,” said Michelle Berman, assistant curator in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. “There was no other illness or injury or any foul play.”
Now, months down the road, the tragedy of the whale’s deaths yields questions — answered and unanswered.
There’s no denying that any death of an intelligent mammal, particularly an endangered one, is heartbreaking, but it does provide invaluable possibilities for scientists to gather hard facts regarding this compelling species. At the same time, conservationists are faced with studying, in this case, the balance between the shipping industries with the protection of a species.
And through it all many wonder why the whales don’t seem to have the wherewithal to break clear of an enormous oncoming ship. With the well-known sophisticated sonic capabilities of whales, it seems odd that these creatures would be caught by a machine that gives off seemingly clear audio warnings.
“These large ships are designed differently than most regular boats,” said Berman. “The tankers are designed with a bulbous bow and that actually reduces the bow wake and also reduces noise in the front of the ship. The props and engine are in the back — nearly a quarter-mile away from the front of the ship and the blue whale has one of the lowest ranges of hearing in any of the marine mammals.”
With such a significant death toll in such a short period, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deemed the situation an emergency and all involved agencies were working overtime to evaluate what was happening. There was talk of speed limits in the shipping lanes and even the idea of redefining shipping lane locations.
But now with time and analysis on their side, the consensus opinion is that this past summer the blue whale food source, krill, was simply in the shipping lanes more than it ever had been before. According to Berman, there were no more whales than normal in the Santa Monica Bay and elsewhere — they were just in areas, due to krill locations, where they’re not usually found.
After the accidents, shipping companies were made aware of the high concentration of blues in the lanes and asked to impose a voluntary speed limit of ten knots through designated areas. There was all-around compliance and from then on there were no more collisions.
“At ten knots, it doesn’t seem to cause injury if they get hit,” said Berman. “Anywhere between 14 and 19 knots will cause injury and above 19 knots can cause death.”
From here, the museum scientists will continue to study the samples they’ve gathered from the deceased whale in Ventura and in a few years will issue a definitive report on what was learned.
Berman stated that what was garnered from the whale carcass was some of the freshest and most usable samples they have seen.
For next season, it’s hoped that the krill won’t live in the shipping lanes like they did this past summer, but if so, the ten- knot speed limit for large ships should protect the whales from any similar fate.