California's Best-Known Whale Dies From Ship Strike. "Killed Literally as Road Kill"
The beloved whale named Fran was also a mother.
Humpback whales nearly went extinct in the late 19th and most of the 20th century due to hunting, hitting a low point of 10,000 to 15,000 whales. However, due to conservation efforts, the number of humpback whales swimming around the world's oceans has increased dramatically, with estimates at about 80,000 as of 2021. About 3,000 of those large mammals spend the summer and early fall up and down the California coast before heading to Mexico where they spend the winter. The main threat to their lives in 2022 is no longer hunters, but ship strikes and getting tangled up in ocean trash and fishing lines. One beloved humpback whale is the latest casualty.
Photos of a dead humpback whale in Half Moon Bay, California surfaced Monday morning, and the mammal was immediately identified by marine biologists. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, recognized a marking on the whale's tail, called a fluke. "I've seen her several times in Monterey Bay," Schulman-Janiger said in an interview with SF Gate. "She's very well-known. She's literally the best-known humpback in California." She contacted Ted Cheeseman, founder of the online whale database Happywhale.
Unfortunately, the whale was Fran, the most famous whale in California, followed by scientists and whale watchers. She was with her only child at the time, but it is unclear if she died too. "In the database we built, we have 70,000 whales and I recognized her immediately," Cheeseman told SF Gate.
Per reports Fran was a healthy, well-nourished whale in great shape with a full body of blubber. Scientists believe that her skull was knocked off her spine by a ship, according to the necropsy. "Ship strikes are tragic. This is the most beautiful animal in the world, being killed literally as road kill. It's such a waste. Quite honestly, I'm both sad and mad," said Cheeseman. "If ships don't go above 10 knots [about 11.5 mph], they're much less likely to kill a whale if they hit it," added Schulman-Janiger. "The good things are we know who she is, we know to look for a calf, and we know this will raise awareness of ship strikes. She can become a poster child for this issue."
"I still feel nauseous," Schulman-Janiger said. "This is somebody in the family. We know her. It's somebody you spent time with. She has a quirky personality. She likes to come up to boats, but not necessarily mug them. She's a great feeder, she has her friends and relatives who she hangs out with. She's full of personality. I haven't gotten used to saying 'she was.'"
Fran was just 17 years old, which is young for a humpback whale, who can live to be 90. She's survived by her mother, Big Fin, and also a child who was born in 2022.