Student postcards to ships help boost whale survival in the Bay Area

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Friday, August 5, 2022
Student postcards help whale survival in the Bay Area
Postcards from Orchard School students in Aptos urge ships to reduce their speeds to prevent collisions with migrating whales in the Bay Area.

APTOS, Calif. (KGO) -- These students have an environmental success story that proves that even small groups can help accomplish big things -- such as protecting the majestic whales that migrate off the Bay Area coast.

Third grader Thalia Koneya has been studying whales at the Orchard School in Aptos, California.

"I think they're really cool. Because they're such big animals. And they help the Earth so much," she said.

Fellow student Wilder Hutto has learned to appreciate the ocean giants too.

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"Because whales are really important for the climate," Wilder said.

But Wilder, Thalia and their classmates also share a serious concern, along with a lot of marine experts.

That's because whales migrate off the Bay Area coast in a pattern that often crosses into commercial shipping lanes. At higher speeds, collisions can be deadly.

Michael Carver oversees the ship strike program for the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

"So ship strike is when vessels coming through the oceans collide with a large whale, usually strike it with their bow and sometimes kill it," Carver explains.

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While the program tracks deadly collisions, its main purpose is to prevent them. To do that, the Sanctuary along with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is convincing shipping companies to slow the speed of their vessels in sensitive areas.

"And together we're able to slow ships down to reduce the risk of lethal ship strikes," says Carver.

The program is voluntary, and relies on the cooperation of the shipping companies.

With that in mind, teachers and students at Orchard school thought, perhaps, they could help the cause. Together the students created cards, thanking the companies for slowing down. They included personal messages to the company executives on one side and hand-drawn artwork of whales on the other.

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Wilder's mom, Sara Hutto, works with NOAA and helped organize the program. She says most of the companies responded right away. In fact, the management of one line, the Mediterranean Shipping Company were so impressed by the cards, NOAA says they adjusted MSC's policy to forgo financial incentives connected with the program.

"I was really blown away. We did not expect to even hear back from the shipping companies, let alone for there to be an actual, like, policy change that was impacted by what the kids did. So we were all really excited," Sara Hutto said.

Now, managers at the sanctuary are hoping the card campaign might also convince more shipping companies to join the program as well. As for the kids, it's perhaps a valuable lesson in the power of positive reinforcement and working together to protect these majestic creatures.

The program is actually known as Blue Whales Blue Skies, and is a partnership with air quality control districts. That's because, along with protecting the whales, slowing down also reduces air pollution from the cargo ships.

More information about the program can be viewed here.

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