Whales Return to West Coast Waters

NOAA Warns Area Boaters to Navigate the Santa Barbara Channel with Caution

Each year thousands of ships, cargo vessels, and smaller boats on their way to ports along the West Coast pass through the Santa Barbara Channel region, a region that — during summer and fall — beckons hundreds of blue whales and humpbacks. The water there is rich in nutrients, filled with their choice delicacies of krill and anchovies. But feasting here is not always a peaceful affair. Sometimes, it can prove deadly.

In 2007, four blue whales were struck dead by ships sailing near the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which in 1980 was designated to uphold protection of 14 regions harboring marine life around the San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara islands. Last year, fortunately, no whales were killed. For 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is adamant about maintaining that figure.

To do that, spreading the word of caution is a chief goal. Striking a blue whale — the largest living creature on Earth — hurts the whale, yes, but considerable damage is incurred by the vessel as well. Strict guidelines, therefore, must be followed. NOAA recommends leaving a football field-length distance (about 300 feet) between ships and all big marine life, and prohibits feeding the animals because it attracts them toward the vessel. Boaters should also never cut across a whale’s trajectory and should avoid sudden speed or directional changes. Perhaps most importantly, boaters should never position themselves between a whale mother and her offspring — because once they’re separated they may not reunite, which often leaves the young whale vulnerable and incapable of fending off starvation.

Since all whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and some larger ones are listed as endangered by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), stiff civil and criminal penalties may be leveled against violators of NOAA’s guidelines. If collision does occur, they ask to be contacted immediately at (877) 767-9425 (877-SOS-WHAL) or at Coast Guard VHF Channel 16.

Sara Hutto, an official of the NOAA stated, “From the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, and to conserve and manage the U.S.’s coastal and marine resources.”

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