A Special Year for Whale Sightings Off the U.S. West Coast

(originally posted at San Anselmo-Fairfax Patch, 21 July 2012)

There are few things more awe-inspiring than seeing a city bus-sized whale emerge from the deep for a breath of air, with nothing but mere yards of ocean surface between boat and beast. The basic, life-giving connection we share with whales—air—allows us to catch a fleeting glimpse of these otherwise mysterious creatures, before they plunge back down into the blue, out of sight, but not out of our minds.

Just off California’s shores, this year has been a record year for sightings of large whales, including humpbacks, fin whales, and the largest animal species that has ever lived: the mighty blue whale. A huge influx of high-nutrient water has led to a boom in krill and other small critters that form the base of the California Current food chain, which includes several whale species. These special conditions have also attracted scores of whale watchers and researchers to the area, who have boarded boat trips to have their own face-to-face experience with whales at sea.

Cause for concern

While necessary (and certainly enjoyable for us), the time that whales spend at or near the surface is also when they are most vulnerable to a common and sometimes deadly threat—being hit by ships.

Colossal shipping vessels—the marine version of 18-wheelers on our nation’s freeways—ply the world’s oceans carrying goods and supplies. They are so enormous that a collision between a propeller and a whale means that the whale loses.

Recently, a 47-ft fin whale washed up dead on a California beach with its spine and ribs having been severed, likely by a propeller of one of these cargo ships. And such incidents have been on the rise in the past two years.

An innovative solution

In a hopeful example of cooperation, NOAA (the federal agency in charge of managing marine resources and protected species in the U.S.), the international shipping industry, and conservation organizations got together and fashioned an innovative—but simple—solution.

The group created guidelines for new shipping lanes in and around the San Francisco Bay—one of the busiest shipping ports in the world—to protect whales. In addition, the plan establishes a real-time whale monitoring network using trained sailors aboard commercial vessels to warn other ship captains in the area when and where they see whales. If successful, this innovative plan could be adopted worldwide, which would be a major win for whales as well as the global shipping industry.

At the core of the process to draw the new shipping lanes is whale sightings data collected annually by several organizations in the SF Bay Area. When data collected over several years were analyzed, patterns of whale densities emerged that allowed this cooperative group to identify adjusted shipping routes that would avoid areas where larger numbers of whales tend to occur.

We at the Oceanic Society (based in Ross) are proud to have contributed to this initiative by sharing whale sightings data that we have collected during our naturalist-led trips to the Farallon Islands for many years.

Don’t miss this opportunity

The abundance of whales in our waters this summer is an amazing opportunity for folks in the Bay Area, so don’t miss out. Our trips to the Farallon Islands leave from Sausalito and San Francisco every Saturday and Sunday and some Fridays. Some groups this year have seen more than 50 whales!

Sign up for a trip, and see for yourself just how breathtaking a first-hand experience with whales in the wild really is. Even better, your participation in an Oceanic Society trip will directly contribute to making the oceans safer for whales and people alike.

For more information on Oceanic Society’s whale watching trips: http://www.oceanicsociety.org/whale-watching-farallon-islands

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