Coming to Southern California to feed is about the most dangerous journey a blue or fin whale can make, according to experts.
The massive marine mammals are being struck and killed as ships head to the nation’s largest port complex.
In an effort to protect whales swimming off the Southern California coast, ships heading toward the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will have to follow a new route for the first time in more than a decade.
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The mandatory 1-mile shift in a main shipping lane between the Channel Islands and the Southern California coastline starts 5 p.m. Friday. Most involved agree it is a small but significant step toward what needs to happen to protect all whales.
In February, a huge container ship pulled into the Port of Los Angeles with an endangered fin whale draped across the blub on the bow of the vessel, pictured below in a photo by Daily Breeze's Alisa Schulman-Janiger.
“For some of these extremely large vessels, the engine is football fields away from the front of the boat,” said Sarah Wilkin, with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “And so for a whale, it might hear it, but it might not know it’s right there on top of them.”
Researchers are unsure how many whales have died from ship strikes, but suspect it’s having a big impact some of the world’s most endangered species that has been slow to recover from other population setbacks.
By the time whaling stopped in 1966, researchers believe the blue whale population had been decimated by 98 percent, plummeting from more than 350,000 worldwide to somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000.
Experts say their numbers have not rebounded in almost 50 years.
Adolescent and adult blue and fin whales have no natural predators. The most likely thing killing them is ship strikes, according to Michael Fishbach, with the Great Whale Conservancy.
Fishbach said for every whale that is known to be killed by a ship strike, there could be at least 10 other whales that were fatally struck.
The waters off Dana Point in Orange County are home to the greatest density of dolphins per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. The largest concentration of blue whales and some 2,500 fin whales also feed in area.
“We’re seeing a lot of calves being born,” said Captain Dave Anderson, a whale researcher who owns the Dana Point-based Dolphin and Whale Safari.
“Our population should be increasing a little greater,” he added. “It’s entirely possible we’re losing a lot more whales in these ship strikes than we realize because most of the whales are going to sink and we’re just never going to see them again.”
Research continues into the potentially fatal ship strikes, this time funded by the shipping industry.
The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association has joined with NOAA and the National Marine Sanctuaries to create ways to protect whales while ferrying goods to one of the nation’s largest ports.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said TL Garrett, with Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “A negative interaction between a vessel and a whale is something that nobody wants. … And, here’s an opportunity for the industry to step up, develop the science and try to figure out what we can do to peacefully co-exist.”
“There’s a lot of life out here and we just need to be careful with it all,” Anderson said.
Gershon Cohen of the Great Whale Conservancy proposed limiting the sailing season.
"Research already shows if ships are mandated to sail outside of the Channel Islands between the critical months of July through October, that by itself would save the lives of blue whales," he said.