The blue whale is the largest animal species ever to have inhabited Earth. The global population prior to human predation has been estimated at 350,000 individuals. Today there are around 10,000.
One of the world’s largest subpopulations of blue whales is the Northeast Pacific group, which transits the California Bight every summer south of Point Conception. This area is also one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes with over 6,000 ships transiting the Santa Barbara Channel to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach every year.
Blue whales are extremely vulnerable to strikes by cargo ships, cruise ships and other vessels while feeding on krill, transiting or resting. During the day krill descend hundreds of feet into the water column, but every evening the whale’s photosensitive prey re-concentrate near the surface. The whales follow the krill back to the dark surface waters and may not react quickly enough to avoid the large ships.
Collision with a ship usually results in injury or death for the whale. Records show that as many as five blue whales are killed by ships every year, and many more deaths likely go unrecorded because blue whales are negatively buoyant and sink when they die. The annual mortality could be as high as dozens of whales, which constitutes a significant threat to this subpopulation and possibly to the entire species.
Despite their size, California’s blue whales are for the most part unseen, which to a great degree is why they remain unprotected. It took decades to institute strong protections, including adjusted shipping lanes, ship speeds, and the establishment of protected areas for North Atlantic right whales, despite 60 years of “protected status” and the knowledge that one-third of the known mortalities every year resulted from ship strikes. The survival of the right whale still hangs by a thread as they number just 300 worldwide. We can’t afford to negotiate for decades on protecting blue whales in the Pacific!
GWC staff give educational presentations, develop public actions, and produce web-based videos to educate and inform the public about the dangers faced by the North Pacific group of blue whales. Focusing attention on State and federal regulatory agencies and on ship owners, they work to strengthen the rules and operational policies for vessels transiting critical blue whale habitat.
The corner on this issue will not be turned until the general public becomes aware of the problem and begins to “speak for the whales.” We must succeed, as it would truly be a tragedy to lose this magnificent species forever.