A humpback whale whose annual visits to Monterey Bay turned her into California’s most famous sea mammal has died in a ship collision, researchers learned this week, bringing new attention to a threat that has haunted whales even as their populations recover.
The 49-foot-long humpback whale was spotted Sunday on a beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and a necropsy at the Marine Mammal Center found one of her vertebrae was fractured and her skull was dislocated, suggesting she died after being struck by a ship.
Within days, researchers identified the beached whale as “Fran,” a 17-year-old humpback who was well-known to local marine biologists and whale enthusiasts alike.
Fran was the most frequently spotted whale in California on Happywhale, a site that allows users to track the giant marine mammals, with more than 250 sightings since 2005 spanning from Monterey Bay in California (where humpback whales feed in the warm months) to the Pacific coast of Mexico (where they tend to breed).
Fran’s personality also made her something of a local celebrity in Monterey Bay, where scientists and whale watchers often spotted her dramatically breaching above the surface of the ocean or gregariously swimming up to boats, according to interviews with the San Jose Mercury News, NBC’s San Francisco affiliate and SFGATE.
For the first time, Fran brought a healthy female calf to California this season, and the mother and daughter were both spotted swimming in Monterey Bay last month, according to the Marine Mammal Center and Happywhale.
Including Fran, at least four whales in the San Francisco area have washed up on the shore this year due to ship collisions, the Marine Mammal Center says.
Humpback whales were killed en masse during the age of whaling, when ships scoured the ocean hunting the 40-ton mammals for their oil-producing blubber. The species has recovered since then as the whaling industry declined and governments introduced conservation efforts in the 20th century, and researchers think thousands of humpbacks now feed off the coast of California and spend their winters in Mexico and Central or South America. However, the massive animals still face a handful of manmade threats, including entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with container ships and oil tankers, Karen Grimmer, a resource protection coordinator with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, told Forbes. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many whales are killed by boats, but Grimmer said “there is a very high risk” as mega-ships often transit through areas frequented by whales. Grimmer believes part of the solution is for ships to slow down to under 10 knots—or 11.5 miles per hour—during peak whale season. Many shipping companies have agreed to voluntarily reduce their speeds off the coast of California, particularly in designated lanes, but while Grimmer notes this system has achieved some success, she added “we would like to see them slow down throughout sanctuaries” rather than specifically in shipping lanes.
“We are very concerned about ship strikes,” Grimmer said. “Hundreds of large container ships are transiting through the [Monterey Bay] sanctuary every year.”
Humpback whales are spending more time feeding off the coast of California every year, according to Grimmer. This trend is partially due to the population’s recovery, but it is also linked to climate change, which has extended the season and made food more available.