Friday, October 30, 2009

Blue whale's death incites local emotions, interest and research

By TONY REED, Fort Bragg Advocate-News

The news that a 73-foot-long female blue whale had washed ashore Oct. 19 after colliding with a research vessel has resulted in dozens of calls, comments and emails to the newspaper office.

Comments vary from demands for a full investigation into the whale's death, to speculation about the ship's purpose and requests for directions to the whale's location. Online, news of the incident has circulated the globe, generating a lot of speculation, allegations and curiosity.

According to National Marine Fisheries Service reports, the crew of the Pacific Star reported that they had felt a shudder in the 78-foot vessel before spotting a surfacing whale nearby. Hours later, the whale drifted ashore south of Fort Bragg, still bleeding from wounds to its back. The Pacific Star is currently mapping the ocean floor to update the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's navigational maps. The information will also be available to the public and will be used for Marine Life Protection Act mandates.

Neighboring property owner Larry Wagner contacted media representative soon after the whale washed into a narrow cove. Wagner's whale photos have appeared on news websites around the world.

Humboldt State University researcher Thor Holmes brought a team to Fort Bragg soon afterward to collect samples, measurements and photos. He reported that the whale likely bled to death from two large cuts into its vertebrae about 25 feet from its fluke. He also said the female had recently given birth, and appeared to be in good health prior to the collision.

A time and place for research

"As a marine scientist I can appreciate the value of highly detailed bathymetric mapping, but I think the Pacific Star's research cruise is clearly ill-timed," College of the Redwoods Marine Science Professor Greg Grantham said in an email to the newspaper. "The Pacific Star is currently conducting research in the heart of the migratory corridors of both the blue whale and Humpback whale at the time of year (September and October) when they are commonly found here in their greatest numbers."

Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach, had a somewhat different take on the question of migration and research areas.

"We do not know a lot about the blue whale's migratory path as opposed to the gray whale. We do know that blue whales migrate between Central America and California, Oregon, and Washington, and use the West Coast areas as feeding grounds," he said by email. "They start appearing in our waters in early summer and start heading south between September and December. But they do not migrate in an orderly fashion as do gray whales and they occur farther offshore than gray whales. To the best of my knowledge, the area where this whale was hit is not known to be a major congregating area for blue whales."

"Seismic surveys of this intensity are known to disorient whales, and there is credible scientific evidence that their hearing may be permanently damaged by close exposure to seismic survey devices," said Grantham. "Both of these species are protected by the Endangered Species Act and The Marine Mammal Protection Act, and at a minimum there should have been an observer onboard the Pacific Star to ensure that seismic surveying was halted when whales were sighted in the vicinity."

"It is important to emphasize that we were not performing a seismic survey, when this incident occurred. We were conducting a hydrographic survey, which is very different than a seismic survey," said James Hailstones, operations manager at Fugro Pelagos, the company NMFS contracted to do the mapping research. "The latter uses a high energy seismic source to penetrate the seafloor, while a hydrographic survey uses a low energy sound source (at a relatively high frequency) to measure the depth to the seafloor."

Grantham suggested that if no observers were present on the ship at the time, the crew was "clearly negligent."

When asked, Hailstones said a lookout was on duty at the time of the collision, and that commercial vessels always have one.

"Blue whales are not deep- or prolonged-divers like sperm whales, and if a blue whale was in the area an observer should have had ample opportunity to sight the individual," Grantham said. "A fundamental understanding of the behavior of this species should make it apparent that the disruption of their feeding and migration was inevitable."

What they were doing

Hailstones commented on the concern that sonar instruments may injure or disorient whales and dolphins. He said that while he is not a marine biologist, the vessel uses systems with similar power as many commercial fish finders, bottom detectors and echosounders.

"I can tell you the instrument we use is high frequency at 400 kilohertz," he said. "It's very low power, about the same as most vessel's depthfinders." Calling the Pacific Star's instruments, "off-the-shelf," Hailstones said they are very different from the Navy's higher-power sonar systems.

What happened

Hailstones described the incident by saying the vessel was moving in a straight line at 5.5 nautical miles per hour (6.5 miles per hour) in broad daylight when the crew felt "a shudder."

"We didn't hit it straight on," he said. "It surfaced under the stern."

He said the ship's hydrographic equipment also didn't detect any movement, because it's designed to survey the ocean floor in "a very narrow cone."

Moments later, the whale appeared at the stern, causing the vessel to stop and move a safe distance away, he said. After observing it for some time, the crew decided there was nothing they could do to help and carried on, Hailstones said.

"I can honestly say that, not only were the people on the vessel very distressed, but the office here and the management company tells us it's a very sad incident," he said. "We can't think of anything we could have done differently for a different outcome. This is a very, very sad incident."

Asked if mapping is restricted during migration seasons, Hailstones said, "We do have a standing order that if we see whale activity, everything stops, but there is nothing in place for migration areas."

"The scientific research is being conducted under a grant from the Hydrographic Survey Division of the National Ocean Service in partnership with the California Ocean Protection Council," said Cordaro. "No permit was issued as there was no expectation that the survey work would be a threat to large whales, as we have never before documented a ship strike between a hydrographic survey vessel and a large whale of any species."

Addressing a local rumor that the Pacific Star is a fishing vessel, Hailstones said it's currently serving as a platform for mapping. At the suggestion of a reader, Hailstones was asked if a cage could be built around ship's propellers.

"Anything is possible," he said, "but a cage would cut the propeller's power output tremendously."

Asked if the vessel was mapping for offshore oil drilling exploration, Hailstones chuckled.

"That's a complete negative," he said, noting that the equipment for locating oil is very different from surface-mapping hydrography and requires special permits. "To do that, you need geophysical equipment that maps the strata under the sea floor."

He said that anyone applying for permits to use geophysical instruments to locate oil would not be approved.

"It'll never happen," he said. "We've been collecting data for two years. We're not looking for anything."

The Pacific Star crew is made up of nine operating crewmembers and nine hydrographers.

The National Marine Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement in Santa Rosa is conducting an investigation into the circumstances regarding the incident and has not released any findings or determinations.

Fugro Pelagos performs hydrographic and airborne laser mapping services. More information about the firm can be found online at

"We [NMFS] routinely partner with the U.S. Coast Guard to issue a Notice to Mariners to be aware of the presence of whales in areas where blue whales tend to congregate, such as in the Santa Barbara Channel. There are no immediate plans to issue a NTM in the Fort Bragg area or along the Mendocino coast," Cordaro said.

Property, onlooker issues

In the nearby Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens store on Oct. 23, employee Cynthia Lambie fielded dozens of questions from visitors wanting to know how to get to the whale. She repeatedly told them that it was bordered by private property and that it could not be seen from the Gardens, which are located south of Fort Bragg.

A letter to Chamber of Commerce members, Executive Director Debra De Graw wrote that, if asked, business operators should say "the whale is not accessible by foot to the public, as there are no public trails to this area."

"As you know, the Chamber has a great respect and appreciation for the whales that migrate and feed off our shores, and each year we celebrate the Gray Whale Migration through our Whale Festivals," DeGraw's letter to chamber members stated. "Our staff is saddened by the death of this gentle giant and hope that people will respect the fact that it is not accessible and let it rest in peace."

Southeast of the location on Ocean Drive, several motorists parked at the Belinda Point easement and trekked about a half-mile to the bluffs but found nothing. Several who passed this reporter asked for better directions to its location.

"We drove from Santa Rosa to see the whale," one woman said, after being told the area was surrounded by private property. She then approached a landscaping crew on Ocean Drive to ask the same questions.

Jerry and Wilma Zari own the house and property less than 200 feet from the whale's location, and have had to contact the Sheriff's Office repeatedly to deal with trespassers.

"We've had about a dozen calls," said Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Bushnell. "When our deputies get down there, they usually find more people arriving."

The property, along with several others, is accessible through a private gate at Schoeffer Lane and Ocean Drive. The steel gate can only be opened with a digital keypad. However, Zari said it didn't stop some people.

He said that two unnamed kids had set up a card table near the Belinda Point over the weekend and were selling maps to the whale's location.

"They were telling people that they could get to it through the gate, [and] if they waited, someone would open it," Zari said. "People pushed on the gate until they bent it. We've had flocks of people in here, it's just been a zoo."

Zari noted that neighboring property owners are concerned for people's safety, along with their own liability.

"It's a dangerous location," he said, noting that they have allowed some people on the property to conduct research, take photos, and film video for publication.

Asked if high ocean swells had moved the whale Friday, neighboring property owner Larry Wagner said he hoped it would wash out to sea.

"We really don't want it rotting in front of our house," he said by phone.

As of Tuesday Oct. 27, Humboldt State University students, locals and others had pulled the bloated whale onshore and began segmenting it and removing the parts.

According to City Manager Linda Ruffing, the group plans to bring the whale up the bluffs in segments so that it can be buried to allow microorganisms to clean to bones. The idea is that the skeleton will be reassembled for display locally.

Part three of this series will detail that effort and plans for the skeletal remains. In the interests of documenting the historic data, the newspaper has photographed and will publish images of the process some may find to be graphic in nature.

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