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Local talks: Humpback Whales of San Francisco, A Journey Home

By Gary Bogue
Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010 at 6:20 am in Humpback Whale, Whales.

Humpback breach. Photo by Alaska Whale Foundation
Humpback breach Malleson

Fred Sharpe, Ph. D, Alaska Whale Foundation, will be in the San Francisco Bay Area this week on Thursday and Friday ( March 4-5), to give talks about humpback whales (“Humpback Whales of San Francisco: A Journey Home”). Here are the times and locations:

*** 7 p.m. Thursday, March 4, at Benicia Camel Barn, 2024 Camel Road, Benicia.

*** 7 p.m. Friday, March 5, Imani Center, 3276 Sonoma Blvd., Suite B, Vallejo.

*** Suggested donation for these talks is $5. Info line: 360-808-0579

Below is an interesting article Dr. Sharpe wrote for us to tweak your interest in his humpback lectures.

Humpback dive. Photo by Alaska Whale Foundation
Vaquita Dive Iyoukeen

Journey Home: Return of the San Francisco Bay Humpback Whale
By Fred Sharpe Ph.D.

As the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, a whale breaches.  With a giant splash and clap of thunder, the humpback falls back into the sea. A spout then shoots skyward and sparkles in golden light.  A giant tail arches and slips into the deep.  The humpback whales of San Francisco have returned.

We know very little of these minds inhabiting our waters. Yet the more we learn endless possibilities arise.  Whales have largest brains ever to have roamed the earth.  Humpback flukes are well known to show unique patterns, and the humpbacks themselves exhibit recognizable personalities that are evident to researches.  Individuals form bonds that endure for decades and perhaps for life.  Leaders blow bubble nets for their pod.  Others give haunting hunting calls to chase fish into the effervescent net.  Humpbacks croon mysterious songs that have captured our hearts.

Humans have not always displayed such reverence for whales.  In the 1800s, these leviathans attracted the attention of whalers on tall ships.  When a spout was sighted, hand propelled long boats were lowered, and the chase was on.  Harpoons were thrown by hand, and captured whales were rowed ashore and rendered on the beach in makeshift camps.  Whales had a good chance of escaping, and the local whale population appeared little affected.  However, in 1870s, two Confederate soldiers produced an infamous harpoon known as the California Whaling Rocket.  Whales had little chance of escaping these exploding harpoons that were fired from steam powered catcher boats.  For nearly a century, fin, blue, gray and humpback whales were hunted off the California Coast.  The whaling station in San Pablo Bay killed nearly 2,000 humpbacks in the mid-1960s for dog food and fertilizer.

Before their complete demise, we finally heard the humpback’s song.  A world moratorium was implemented and the whaling rockets fell silent.  Our wisdom is being rewarded, for now they are staging a dramatic comeback. In late spring, a growing parade of humpbacks arrives off our coast after journeying from warm shallow nurseries in Mexico and Central America.  Many humpbacks now hunt around the Farallon Islands, on Cordell Bank and in Monterey Bay. They were probably once common in the churning waters below the Golden Gate.  As they recover, whales again are wandering into San Francisco Bay.

However, with so much cultural knowledge lost, San Fancisco Bay is now a tricky place for humpbacks.  Bridges, ships, turbid waters and the human din disorientate whales.  A few humpbacks have wandered through Carquinez Strait and swam up the Sacramento River.  Rather than finding food, the found a caring human population and became international celebrities.  These stories have happy endings.  Volunteers ushered whales back to sea as hundreds of well wishers cheered from the shore.

The best is yet to come.  A major census of North Pacific humpbacks has recently been completed by Cascadia Research.  Known as the SPLASH project, it suggests that the local population is growing steadily.  Now more than 1,500 humpbacks ebb and flow along the California-Oregon Coast.  The North Pacific population has swollen to more than 20,000 whales.  If we make room, more humpbacks will call this place home.  Some individuals alive today survived the final flurry of hunting in the mid 1960s.  They probably have not forgotten, but they do appear to forgive.

The return of the humpback gives us hope.  Planet earth still retains much vitality.  The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act guide our thinking.  Blue whales of the Santa Barbara Channel now return to the Aleutians Islands. Gray whales recovered several decades ago. Humpback populations are growing the world over and our local whales are doing swimmingly.

The return of the humpback whale gives us a second chance.  Now it is time to think about their needs.  They return to find their ancestral home humanized and risky.  Fishery depletions, military sonar, ship collisions, boat propellers, entanglements in fishing gear, noise pollution, industrialized shorelines, climate change and toxins have been laid as a welcome mat.  If we value wilds things, our behavior must further change.

To celebrate, observed and learn how to help marine wildlife, voyage with the Oceanic Society.  Seals and sealions can be appreciated at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.  Enjoy our water ways by hiking the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve on Saturday, March 13.  Report entangled or disoriented whales to the Whale Entanglement Team at 877-SOS-WHALe (877-767-9425).  Live stranded animals including seals and sea lions should be reported to the Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-SEAL (415-289-7325).  Come learn about humpback whales in a series of lectures with Dr. Fred Sharpe (see above for times and locations).

The recovery of great whales gives us cause to celebrate.  Like the breaching humpback, we too have a reason to jump for joy.

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One Response to “Local talks: Humpback Whales of San Francisco, A Journey Home”

  1. connie channon Says:

    We were sailing today, saturday march 13th. We sighted a whale 1/2 mile north of alcatraz. We are not sure what kind of whale it was. We saw it swimming along the surface. Then spouting a couple of times. Should we assume it was a humpback?

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