The California Blue Whale weighs as much as 190 tons and grows to a length of 33 meters, making it the largest animal on earth. They live primarily along the California coast, but have been spotted as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and as far south as Costa Rica. They became an endangered species due to unregulated hunting practices in the early part of the century.
Whaling nations, particularly Russia, freely hunted for whale in the Antarctic waters, killing approximately 346,000 of these beautiful animals before laws were implemented in 1966 to ban the practice. However the Soviets continued to hunt until 1971, cementing the impact on the blue whale population in the Antarctica which fell to 1% of their historical levels. The blue whales in the Pacific were somewhat less impacted, yet research reveals that between 1905 and 1971, at least 3,400 of these animals were killed. This also shows that their original population was much smaller than the Antarctic whales.
Aggressive educational and regulatory initiatives has enabled the blue whale populations to rebound, to roughly 97% of their historical levels, but to understand the true health of the California Blue Whale population took some creative doing. It was not so easy to separate out the two main groups: those that live near Russia/Japan and those that live near California. How to know which are which? Scientists turned to song. The two groups have their own song, and from the songs, scientists were able to draw the boundary between the two groups. Now, with access to previously closed records regarding whaling, and historic population numbers, researchers can say with confidence that the California Blue Whale has almost completely recovered from the harmful effects of previous fishing and hunting practices. Today, scientists are concerned about vessel traffic citing that approximately 11 blue whales are killed annually by ships. The risk is so high, that California regulators are offering financial incentives to merchants to slow down their ships in order to avoid collision with the whales. Captains will receive a stipend of $2,500 for each trip through the Santa Barbara channel—a 130 mile span of waters stretching from Point Conception to Long Beach, if they slow down to 12 knots, rather than the 14-18 knots normal cruising speed. For now, it is a trial program, with six international shipping companies participating. It concludes at the end of October. Regulators, researchers and advocates will analyze the trial’s impact, both on merchants and the whale population before determining whether to make the incentive program a permanent part of California’s whale protection program.
In the meantime, for marine scientists and researchers, whale watchers, and of course the California Blue Whale, this is very good news.