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Captain’s Log: Research Under Way to Protect Marine Mammals

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent’s Report provides good insight into valuable work

We can feel good about new and ongoing efforts to understand and better protect marine mammals visiting or living in the Santa Barbara Channel and waters surrounding the Channel Islands. The following excerpts from the July issue of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent’s Report give good insight into great work.

Capt. David Bacon
Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)

» Scientists from the NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center collected biopsy samples of short-beaked common dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel aboard the CINMS’ 41-foot vessel (NOAA-R4107) on June 19. Scientist Nick Kellar and NOAA corps officer Fionna Matheson, operating under the proper permits, collected small samples of skin and blubber with darts fired from a crossbow and took photographs for species confirmation.

Samples will be analyzed for contaminant loads, biotoxin exposure, reproductive status and population structure via genetic markers. This is part of a larger study looking at population heath relative to various anthropogenic activities.

Kellar and Matheson conducted their work in conjunction with the day’s primary mission led by Naturalist Corps volunteers John Kuizenga and Dennis Carlson, who collect marine mammal sounds in the sanctuary for outreach and education and correlate sounds with observed behavior.

Kuizenga and Carlson deployed hydrophones in the vicinity of blue and humpback whales near Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands. Although no calls where heard during recording, Kuizenga and Carlson were able to identify some sounds during post-processing. CINMS research specialist Dani Lipski helped facilitate the cruise and assisted with both projects. Several more cruises are scheduled for 2009.

» Beginning June 15, the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA Weather Radio began broadcasting a Local Notice to Mariners to warn of the seasonal presence of large whales in the Santa Barbara Channel, including waters of the CINMS.

The notice advises the following: “Vessels transiting the Santa Barbara Channel should be aware of large whales including blue, humpback, fin and sperm whales in the Channel and the shipping lanes between the months of May through November. Mariners should exercise caution when traveling through the Channel and in and out of Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors, as whales may be distributed throughout the area. Blue, humpback, fin and sperm whales are endangered species protected under federal law. Please report any collisions with whales or any observed injured or dead whales to NOAA at 877.SOS.WHALES (877.767.9425) or the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Sightings of humpback and blue whales have been recorded lately in these areas by trained Channel Islands Naturalist Corps volunteers aboard whale watching vessels, and from aerial surveys made by sanctuary staff. Maps of the observed whale locations will be sent to the shipping industry via a variety of contacts that have been made in the past two years. If conditions change and groups of five or more whales are observed within or near to the shipping lanes, a second notice will request a voluntary ship speed reduction to 10 knots.

» On May 22, four dead northern right whale dolphins that had stranded on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary were recovered by staff from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Protected Resources Division (Southwest Region) and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The initial report of five stranded animals was received on May 21. Aerial survey flights were conducted May 22-23 by sanctuary staff aboard NOAA’s Twin Otter aircraft (NOAA-56), but no additional sightings were made. Initial necropsy work was performed on one of the dolphins at Santa Rosa Island, and on the other three at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Initial work did not indicate a clear cause of death, but complete test results are not yet available.

Northern right whale dolphins are 6 to 10 feet in length and weigh up to 250 pounds. They typically travel in herds of 100 to 200 and can swim in bursts of speed up to 22 miles per hour. They exist throughout the North Pacific Ocean and are believed to number about 68,000.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help.

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