SoCal Connected on KCET

Blue Whales in Danger

Original Airdate December 9, 2011; Updated August 20, 2014

Val Zavala: They’re larger than any animal on the planet, and bigger than any dinosaur that ever lived. And we’re lucky enough to see them right off the Southern California coast.

Kera Mathes is a biologist with the Aquarium of the Pacific. She leads research tours in Long Beach and says the whale watching has never been better. The reason? Blue whales are attracted to their favorite food called krill.

Kera Mathes: Over the last 10 years or so there has been a shift in the krill and so we’ve had a lot more krill in the area and they’re always going to go where the food is.

Val Zavala: But the whales are also in dangerous waters. This stretch of ocean between Santa Barbara and South Long Beach is a busy traffic lane for huge cargo ships. Every year, 5,000 ships make the 130-mile journey through the channel to the L.A. and Long Beach ports. And sometimes ships and whales collide. And when that happens, the whale always loses. This is an incredible picture of a 62-foot thin whale draped across the buoy of a tanker in Long Beach. It’s believed the whale was killed after being struck by the ship.

Kera Mathes: The container ships are very large and they’re moving at a good speed. So when these ships come through, the propellers will actually sever their spines.

Val Zavala: And it happens fairly often. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says over the past decade off California’s coast, ships and whales have collided 61 times. And biologists say it could be 10 times that often.
John Calambokidis is a biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Washington State.

John Calambokidis: Most whales…when they die, sink, so they would never be discovered.

Val Zavala: 2007 was especially fatal. Four blue whales were killed by cargo ships. But wouldn’t you think the whales would avoid these huge vessels?

John Calambokidis: We don’t see any indication of the whales avoiding the ships. The whales may actually react by spending more time at the surface. And of course that’s the very opposite reaction we would want if they were to avoid being struck by the ship. So our early indications are they are not avoiding the ships and they may react in ways that are counterproductive. This may be why this species in particular is so vulnerable.

Val Zavala: This is a map of the whales movements off the coast of Long Beach. The colored dots show where the whales feed, the white lines are the shipping lanes. You can see why the whales are in danger. Still, no ship’s captain wants to hit a whale. They’d all prefer to steer cleer.

T.L. Garrett: I can’t imagine anything more tragic than a vessel striking a whale and I’m sure every ship master – they are just heart sick at the very concept that it could be happen.

Val Zavala: But on such enormous vessel – some close to 1,000 feet long – even a blue whale, the largest animal in the world, is impossible to see.

T.L. Garrett: If you’ve ever been on a modern container vessel, they are several stories above water level. The bridge is usually far back.

Val Zavala: In 2011 off the coast of San Diego, this 67-foot pregnant finned whale washed ashore. She and her unborn calf were killed when a ship hit them. Scientists say her vertebras were fractured. Calambokidis and his team contract the movements of blue whales by attaching suction cup tags on them. This is only legal when you have a research permit from the federal government. And it’s dangerous – they’ve counted about 2,000 blue whales and they’re numbers were growing, for a while.

John Calambokidis: But then over the last 20 years, we haven’t seen any increase in those numbers. We don’t know the exact reason why they’re not increasing. But one of the things we’re very concerned about is ship strikes as a potential cause.

Val Zavala: So what can be done to protect these magnificent creatures? A study done by the U.S. Coast guard made several recommendations. First, move the shipping lanes. In fact, the Coast Guard’s recommendation was approved and in July 2013, the shipping lane was moved to make it safer for the whales. Another option? Slow the big cargo ships down.

John Calambokidis: There’s scientific data from the East Coast and other areas that if you slow ships down and there is a ship strike, it is less likely to kill the whale.

Val Zavala: But the Shipper’s Association disagrees. They say the science doesn’t yet support the idea that slowing down will save whales, and it will cost the industry money.

T.L. Garrett: Time is money and any reduction in vessel speed would result in additional cost.

Val Zavala: So in July, a nonprofit group and the county of Santa Barbara, started offering shippers $2,500 a trip to slow down. It’s not a lot of money, and shippers don’t have to participate. But if they pilot program makes a difference, it could be extended. These changes are encouraging for Calambokidis and other whale advocates who believes it’s possible for humans and whales to coexist.

I don’t know that’s anything more beautiful than the shimmering color of this giant animal when it’s underwater and the sun is shining. And here it is, 5-10 miles off of one of our densest areas of human habitation. And that’s just an incredible opportunity for the humans and the whales. If we can protect whales in an area like this…I mean that’s great hope for finding ways that you can have this wonderful animals be here.

Val Zavala: I'm Val Zavala for "SoCal Connected."

Blue whales are the largest and most beautiful creatures to inhabit the earth. But in recent years, these marine mammals have been spotted closer to shore, putting them at risk for deadly container ship collisions in Southern California.

Kera Mathes, a biologist at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, explained that there has been a significant shift in krill, shrimp-like creatures that whales feed on in the last 10 years. This shift -- in addition to the increase of container ships moving to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach -- create a dangerous environment for whales.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 61 whales have collided with ships off the coast of California in the past 10 years.

What can be done to protect these magnificent marine mammals? Why are so many whales popping up near the shore? Find out in this segment of "SoCal Connected."

SoCal Connected on KCET

Reporter Val Zavala speaks with Social Media Editor Amy Lieu about the dangers facing blue whales along the California coast.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Kera Mathes, Aquarium of the Pacific
  • T.L. Garrett, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association
  • Captain Roosevelt Johnson, captain, Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station


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