A humpback whale affectionately known as Fran that died and washed ashore in Half Moon Bay last week is considered a huge loss by many researchers and whale enthusiasts along the Central Coast.
“Fran is the most commonly seen whale in California and second only to one whale in Alaska,” said Ted Cheeseman, co-founder of Happywhale, a global whale database that collaborates with researchers and citizen science. .D. Students at Southern Cross University in Australia.
“My first reaction was emotional,” Cheeseman said. “Yes, I am happy that we were able to identify this whale. But most were crushed by the whale’s departure.”
In her 17 years of life, Fran was able to help researchers better understand the behavior and social interactions of this population of humpback whales. He died from injuries consistent with a collision with a ship.
Fran was born in 2005. He was first photographed with his mother, Big Fin, who was often seen in the Gulf until 1988.
Every summer since 2006, Fran has been seen in Monterey Bay during the spring to fall feeding season. But it wasn’t until 2016 that ferd Bergholz, an avid whale watcher, officially named Fran in honor of his late wife through the Ocean Society.
“At the time (the whale) was called Marina,” Bergholz said. “It wasn’t his real name, that’s what people called him because he saw her around Marina so many times.”
Fran was easy to identify because each humpback whale tail is unique. The trailing edge, as well as the color and markings of the tail, allowed observers to recognize it immediately.
“He would regularly raise his tail, and then there’s a fairly distinct tail pattern,” Cheeseman said. “We’re out there whale watching and we’re going to see this whale. “It’s Fran!” It’s an exciting thing to see. We can recognize him immediately.”
The whales that come to Monterey Bay to feed are part of two distinct populations. Humpback whale populations are divided according to where they feed and where they breed.
There are four population segments in the Pacific North; A Hawaiian population feeding in Alaska, a Western Pacific population, a Southern Mexican/Central American population, and a Northern Mexican/Mainland Mexican population. The latter two will intermingle and feed along the West Coast.
The Northern Mexico/Mainland Mexico population is considered threatened, while the Southern Mexico/Central American population is listed as endangered.
Fran was spotted on the breeding grounds in Guerrero, Mexico, making it an endangered species whale.
Being able to identify individuals and track them through photo identification, said Dr. It allows researchers like David Cade to better understand different populations and behaviors.
Fran was also part of a larger study looking at whale body condition during the spring and fall feeding seasons. At the beginning of the spring feeding season, humpback whales become thinner as they migrate to their breeding grounds. Humpbacks will lose thousands of pounds as they move to and from their breeding grounds.
Cade can then observe the difference in body condition throughout the year by spotting whales in the spring and identifying the animal and pasting sheets in the fall.
In 2016, Cade and his team were able to attach a suction cup to Fran to observe her behavior as part of a larger project.
“Most of the time he’s seen in Monterey, during the day by whale watchers or with our tags, he doesn’t do much. He’s pretty cool,” Cade said. “And then he starts feeding mostly at night.”
Many whales in Monterey Bay use to feed during the day, but that was not the case for Fran.
“This is not typical behavior,” Cade said. “It has some alternative feeding strategies that it has developed over time.”
Humpback whales are dynamic when it comes to feeding. Humpbacks can be considered generalists because they can feed on many different types of prey, from schooling fish such as anchovies to krill.
“Because they feed on so many different things, they often develop new feeding strategies. It seems that this indicates that Fran is an innovator.”
This year, Fran was able to successfully bring a calf to Monterey Bay, which was an exciting development for many.
“Every year when Fran goes to Mexico, I sit at home and wait for Fran to bring me a baby,” Bergholz said. “And the irony is that he gave me back a baby this year.”
In 2014, Fran was spotted with a calf on the ranch, but the calf never made it to Monterey Bay.
Fran and her new calf were in Monterey Bay in July when Cade and his team attached a heart monitor to Fran’s calf. From this, they were able to record the calf’s behavior throughout the day – mostly relaxing with the occasional disturbance and play.
“There were three major breaches during the day,” Cade said.
At night, the calf circled a lot, which may indicate that the calf is foraging or watching its mother feed.
Cade and his team are still analyzing the heart rate data.
“He’s an animal that I’ve known and seen over the years,” Cade said. “Even when the project was completed, we saw it in the area. I was so happy to see it this summer… It’s one of the few animals I can be like, yes, I know that animal.”
It is normal to see humpback whales alone, and many researchers have seen the whales form brief bonds with other whales lasting only a few hours to a few days. The longest bond between two humpback whales is between mother and calf, lasting about a year.
In the past, researchers would say that humpback whales are solitary.
“We don’t say that anymore. But they definitely have a fluid, social dynamic,” Cheeseman said. “There are some exceptions to this, for example in Alaska. You see these bubble net feeders consistently feeding with the same individuals (year after year). We don’t see that here.”
Fran is another exception. Fran is documented every year in Monterey Bay with a whale named Lim.
“Fran was seen very consistently with this other whale,” Cheeseman said. “We named him Ferd aka Lim after Ferd Bergholz.”
The relationship between Fran and Ferd aka Lim is a unique one that allows researchers like Cheeseman to think more about humpback whale society.
“Trying to work is a tough thing,” Cheeseman said. “How do you detect such fluid social dynamics when you can’t see or track the whales in real time, but that’s something we’re trying to figure out how to do.”
Many hope the calf is alive and well.
“It’s like a Bambi moment,” Cade said.
No one has seen the calf recently, but the hope is that it will survive and thrive.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know if (Fran) was in the shipping lane or if there was a problem or if he was somewhere he wouldn’t normally be and a boat came across,” Bergholz said. “But it’s such a shame because he was such a beautiful whale.”