NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers are tagging blue and fin whales off the coast of southern California this summer to study their movements, some of which include preferred feeding grounds near areas of heavy ship traffic.
The project, which is being funded by the U.S. Navy, will build on a previous study by OSU researchers that documented the seasonal distribution of blue whales, including their appearance near established shipping lanes off Santa Barbara. That analysis was based on satellite tracking of 171 blue whales for up to 13 months during a 15-year stretch from 1993 to 2008.
It was published last month in the journal PLOS ONE. Since that publication, six major shipping companies voluntarily agreed to slow their ships near Santa Barbara to lessen the chance of striking endangered blue whales, and to reduce pollution.
“No one wants to see whales hit by ships, and it is clear from the analysis that there has been some historic overlap of blue whale feeding areas and shipping lanes,” said Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, which is conducting the tagging project. “The goal of the new Navy-funded project is to better understand the seasonal occurrence of blue and fin whales in southern California and determine if that overlap is still taking place for these protected species.”
An OSU team led by Ladd Irvine began tagging the whales last month and thus far has successfully deployed 21 tags. The researchers hope to attach 24 long-term satellite tracking tags – a dozen each for blue whales and fin whales – and another eight more sophisticated tags that will track the whales’ underwater feeding habits. They hope to attach four of these Advanced-Dive-Behavior tags on blue whales and four on fin whales.
OSU’s recently published 15-year analysis was the most comprehensive study of blue whales movements ever conducted. It tracked the movement of blue whales off the West Coast to identify important habitat areas and environmental correlates, and subsequently to understand the timing of their presence near major ports and shipping traffic.
“The main areas that attract blue whales are highly productive, strong upwelling zones that produce large amounts of krill – which is pretty much all that they eat,” said Irvine, who was lead author on the PLOS ONE study. “The whales have to maximize their food intake during the summer before they migrate south for the winter, typically starting in mid-October to mid-November. It appears that two of their main foraging areas are coincidentally crossed by shipping lanes.”
An estimated 2,500 of the world’s 10,000 blue whales spend time in the waters off the West Coast of the Americas and are known as the eastern North Pacific population. Blue whales can grow to the length of a basketball court, weigh as much as 25 large elephants combined, and their mouths could hold 100 people, though their diet is primarily krill – tiny shrimp-like creatures less than two inches in length.
At a distance, fin whales look a lot like blue whales. They are the second largest of the whales and reach 75 feet in length – the size of two buses. The tall, columnar blows of fin whales look much like that of blue whales. Fin whales have a taller, sickle-shaped dorsal fin, a lower right lip that is white, and feed on schooling fish as well as krill.