West Coast
A blue whale swims near a container ship. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

CA - How we can protect our last remaining blue whales, the world’s largest-ever animal

The future for California’s whales is brighter thanks to Whale Safe

The endangered blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth — let alone California.

At up to 400,000 pounds (the weight of 33 elephants!) and as long as 90 feet, they migrate up the California coast from May to October alongside several other species, including humpbacks and gray whales, favorites of whale watchers. But unlike those two species, the blue whale has never come close to recovering from the devastation of 20th century commercial whaling, banned internationally in 1986.

Even the biggest animals need help in our changing oceans. As many as 80 endangered whales — among them blue whales, fin whales, and some populations of humpbacks — wash up on California shores each year, often after fatal encounters with container ships. Ship strikes are a top source of whale mortality, killing thousands of whales globally each year. It’s a worsening problem that has even prompted federal investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Every whale loss matters, not just for biodiversity and the loss of cherished individuals  — some of whom are bona fide celebrities — but because we run the risk of losing some of these magnificent species forever.

UC Santa Barbara marine biologist Douglas McCauley has good news.

“This is a solvable problem,” he says.

He and his team have developed a solution for alerting ships to the presence of whales so they can slow down and take precautions. Even better: Two years of data suggest it’s working.

With fewer than 15,000 blue whales worldwide, and just 2,000 off the California coast, we can, and must, save the whales.

Falling for the oceans

McCauley grew up in Los Angeles, maybe not the most obvious place to discover a passion for ecology. The sidewalks and built environment of LA were not a natural showcase, but the yawning blue space on the map beckoned.

“For the price of a $15 entry ticket, which was your mask, you could dive underwater in a kelp forest, look up and see the skyline of LA, the zooming cars, then look down and share space with giant sea bass and migrating whales,” he says. “Wildness was waiting for me as a teacher, my earliest lab.”

Douglas McCauley
Courtesy photo Douglas McCauley

For the price of a $15 entry ticket, which was your mask, you could dive underwater in a kelp forest, look up and see the skyline of LA, the zooming cars, then look down and share space with giant sea bass and migrating whales.
Douglas McCauley

Working on fishing boats going in and out of the Port of Los Angeles in the summer helped him pay his way for a degree at UC Berkeley. Many of the people he grew up with had family working in the port as longshoremen or worked there themselves. The importance of the towering shipping industry to local families and communities was unmissable, as was its vital role in the overall economy.

“Some people estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the goods that we interact with on a daily basis have actually traveled on a ship across an ocean somewhere,” McCauley notes.

Thousands of container ships and tankers ply our waters each year, a $9 billion industry that continues to grow. The danger to whales has grown with it, even as scientists continue to uncover profound insights about whale intelligence and communication, and the vital role these mammals play in the health of ocean ecosystems.

The songs that changed the world

In the 1960s, when commercial whaling was taking as many as 50,000 whales a year, long after the usefulness of their blubber as a natural resource had expired, scientist Roger Payne was listening to something. Naval equipment called hydrophones monitored the seas, hoping to detect stealthy enemy submarines. But they were also detecting strange underwater sounds that they couldn’t identify. Payne was the first to realize the noises chalked up to mechanical objects were actually whale vocalizations, and more than that, songs they used to communicate. In 1970, he introduced the world to these songs through his best-selling LP “Songs of the Humpback Whale.”

Payne’s scientific discovery helped launch advocacy against commercial whaling and the ubiquitous 1970s campaign to “save the whales.” And it worked — commercial whaling was banned internationally in 1986.

Since that time, and because some whales have been able to recover somewhat, we’ve made even more discoveries. Whales don’t just sing — they have unique dialects that vary within species and pods. Some scientists, among them UC Berkeley faculty, are even trying to understand their language, and possibly “speak” it, as part of an international effort involving endangered sperm whales. We’ve learned that whales grieve, will protect other animals from predation, and may even hold secrets to aging and resilience against cancer. Science’s growing recognition of their complexity reflects the appreciation many Indigenous communities have had for whales going back millennia.

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