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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 5:33 am | A Few Clouds 51º


Captain’s Log: Dead Blues’ Clues Point to Shipping Traffic

Krill-hunting blue whales and cargo vessels make for a dangerous mix in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Ships ramming blue whales … what a horrible image. That image recently and repeatedly came to life — and death — right here in the Santa Barbara Channel. It made the news. It made the magazines. It became the hot topic of conversation at a recent meeting of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. Thus far there has only been talk.

Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)
Blue whales have been visiting our channel each summer for longer than humans can remember. The shipping lanes, with monster container ships traveling at surprising speeds of 20 to 30 knots (a nautical mile is 1.16 statute mile), are a relatively recent addition, yet it must be noted that container ships and whales have been missing each other out there quite nicely for many decades now. Suddenly — late this season — it all changed and dead whales are floating about. Why?

What I’ve noticed this season, during charters aboard my vessel, WaveWalker, is abundant krill distributed a bit differently than usual. Blue whales commonly feed on krill along a major dropoff into deep water along the front side of Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands. The krill is in deeper water this year where the shipping lanes transect the channel. Consequently, there is more feeding activity right at the edge of the lanes. The close proximity of whales focused on hunting and very fast container ships have resulted in the destruction of at least a few blues. There may well have been damage to whales we are not aware of.

Determining what preventive actions to take is not a simple matter. The first step is to monitor the situation. Various government agencies are coordinating observation flights over the channel, including the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish & Game . Whale location information is passed to the National Marine Fishery Service, the Coast Guard and the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which works with the shipping industry to keep the ocean safe for all.

Actions taken include the Coast Guard’s frequently broadcast (on marine VHF radio) “Local Notice To Mariners,” warning of the danger to blue whales. The National Marine Fishery Service’s Office of Protected Resources asked the Coast Guard to include wording in those messages to recommend a safe speed of 10 knots.

Actions not being taken are even more important and may result in more injuries and fatalities. The container ships are not slowing to 10 knots, according to my own observations. They have schedules to maintain and large numbers of workers gathering at docks to offload their cargo and load them back up again. Another action not taken is to move the shipping lanes outside of the islands. Tankers already transit outside the islands, so there is precedent, although additional problems arise out there, such as conflict with military training exercises. We need more agencies involved in saving our blue whales.

Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters  and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a new nonprofit group providing seafaring opportunities for those in need.

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