July Whale Watch

July Whale Watch - Chris Otchy

Welcome to your monthly round up of all things related to our favorite marine mammals. Here’s what’s been happening in July, 2016. 

US Navy Restrictions

A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the US Navy has been using sonar at levels that will injure whales and other marine mammals and disrupt their migration patterns. 

The decision made in July at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will restrict the levels at which low-frequency sonar can be used in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. 

Sonar is used by the Navy to detect submarines and other submerged objects, and can also be used for underwater communication.  

Prior regulations protected marine mammals in the waters along the U.S. Coastlines, but left other areas throughout the world under-protected. Judge Ronald Gould ruled that the government had failed to comply with a law that ensures peacetime oceanic programs have “the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammals.”

Exxon Mobil Uses Drones to Tracks Whale Movements

When Exxon prepares for off shore operations, it’s normal for them to conduct some environmental studies and surveys of marine mammal movements through the area. 

“The detection allows us a greater level of awareness of where the animals are,” says Ashley Alemayu, a spokesperson for Exxon, “and that helps with our migration strategies.” 

Exxon Mobil has been tracking whales for 20 years, primarily using satellites and humans with binoculars. This year, they are employing a new tool - drones. 

Tracking Whales with Drones - Chris Otchy

While satellites are good for long distance tracking, they are limited in their movements and are thwarted by cloud cover. Drones have a lot more flexibility. Over the course of two weeks in March, they sent out four type of drones to gather data. 

Drones have steadily become an asset the oil and gas industry relies on heavily. Outside of tracking animal movements, the energy giants are also using them to perform inspections of pipelines and offshore rigs, saving the companies time and money. 

Exxon came under scrutiny from marine mammal organizations after an incident in 2008 when nearly 100 whales were stranded in a lagoon in Madagascar. An independent review of the incident by the International Whaling Commission found the sonar systems used by an Exxon Mobil contractor to be at fault for attracting whales to the lagoon, where they died. 

Unsurprisingly, Exxon disputes the panel’s findings - but they did change their use of sonar in certain places as a result. 

Premature Bay Area Whale Sightings

It’s not unusual to see whales in Bay Area waters, but it is this time of year. Whales don’t normally show up in these parts until late summer and fall, but that’s changed this year. Gray, humpback, and even blue whales have been sighted in our region since May. 

Two kayakers and their pup were nearly hit by this humpback breaching in Half Moon Bay.


Strollers on the Golden Gate Bridge have even spotted whales in the SF Bay.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We’re seeing all sorts of behaviors: breaching, peck slapping, and vocalizations above water.”

Scientists are divided on whether the early arrival of our marine friends is good or bad news. 

Dr. Sarah Allen of the Coastal Resources Program at the National Park Service theorizes that the whales are following a bloom of anchovies stirred up by La Nina’s cold water conditions.

Other scientists believe that whales were forced out of their southern waters off the coast of Central America and Mexico earlier than usual for an unknown reason. Perhaps they were tired of all that spicy Latin American food? 

Fishing Net Entanglements

Unfortunately, the whales’ early arrival has overlapped with Dungeness crab season, which has resulted in a higher than normal number of whales are getting caught in fishing nets. Last year saw the highest number of entanglements since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started keeping track in 1982. 

While this may sound like a bad thing, experts believe it’s actually a good sign. Why, you ask? 

First, because people are noticing and reporting whale entanglements more than ever before - good on you, people! “If you see something, say something” - that snappy slogan isn’t just for airports and mass transit.

The second reason why scientists think this is good is because it is further proof that conservation efforts are succeeding. Because of the work we’ve done to increase the availability of whales’ food sources, there are more whales in our area and therefore more entanglements. 

Don’t get me wrong - I’d rather there be no whale entanglements, but if it’s proof that there are more whales alive in our waters and that their habitat is supporting them sufficiently, I’ll take it. 

Lastly, here’s something you can do to help - if you do see a whale in trouble, make a report! The state of California has a whale entanglement working group made up of fishermen, environmentalists and federal and state officials.

Call: 1-877-SOS-WHALE (1-877-767-9425) or US Coast Guard on Marine VHF Channel 16. Include photos, videos, and the following information:

  • the location of the whale
  • a detailed description of the color and type of entangling substance
  • the color and size of the buoys
  • the direction of the whale's movement
  • the behavior of the whale
  • the size and condition of the whale
  • the species of whale, if you can tell

Lastly, stay with the whale until help arrives. 

That’s all for this month. Happy whale watching!