Stay in Your Own Lanes

With the news about the upcoming change in shipping lanes in the waters off Southern California – which means more room for whales to roam in their traditional feeding areas free of potential collision with shipping vessels – there was a big surprise on a recent whale watching expedition.

There she was, a fin whale swimming inside the boundaries of…a shipping lane.

“Well, it just goes to show you,” says Monica L. DeAngelis, NOAA marine mammal biologist who was on board checking out the wildlife. “They can’t read maps.”

Indeed, the lone whale was probably in between coming or going to the feeding waters, but still the scene demonstrated the ever-present problem of how can man and animal can co-exist in the same space, be it land or sea.

Nonetheless, there are humans who are willing to try to create a peaceful solution such as altering the configuration of the current shipping lanes so that big ships will – cross fingers – steer clear of the giant beasties.

Using data from Washington State’s Cascadia Research, NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on the new reroute – which includes protected areas from San Francisco, Santa Barbara Channel,  Los Angeles and Long Beach ports – moves the north and south bound lanes inward a mile. This will narrow the ship space but give a bigger berth for blues, fin, humpbacks and gray whales that use the waters for migration, feeding and general frolicking.

The lane designation is slated to take effect in the next few months, according to Captain Jennifer Williams of the US Coast Guard who, on the same whale watching boat, spoke about efficient flow of traffic and better safety for the ships as well as avoiding colliding with endangered whales. “We have a two for one on this,” she says about the new lanes that will aid both mankind and whale.

Still, there are those who think even more can be done to keep marine mammal and steel separate in the waters. Last year, NOAA encouraged SoCal ship traffic to “slow down” to reduce collision and broadcasted messages to mariners to “keep a sharp lookout for blue, humpback and fin whales around the Channel Islands” and to keep speeds “not in excess of 10 knots due to whales in the area.”

It’s hard to imagine that a large ship couldn’t spy a large whale in the water (and vice versa) but it happens, says DeAngelis. The whales are often moving all over and if they are feeding “they are so focused on food they don’t know what’s coming.” These ships aren’t usually equipped with sonar and, even if they were, the whales can move so fast – especially the sleek and speedy fin whale – that such technology would be useless.

Whale strikes can leave ships heavily damaged, and disfigure and kill whales, but just how many is up for speculation. After all, we can only count the ones that wash ashore. Recently in Malibu, a 40-foot fin whale washed ashore; the case of death was confirmed as a collision with a ship.

Back on the whale watching boat, the lone fin whale came up and down, blowing air and bringing “oohs” and “ahhs” from guests.  Watching this creature and thinking of the thousand others of its kind nearby, it’s hard not to be maternal, internally begging them, “Always look both ways before you cross the shipping lanes, OK? There are ships out there, you know!”

Photo: Fin whale, NOAA