Success Story: Blue Whale Population Rebounds

California blue whales have just become the first whales to recover their population numbers after whaling, which nearly drove the marine mammals to extinction. Continue reading →

California's blue whale population has recovered to near historic levels, according to a new Marine Mammal Science study.

This is the only population of blue whales in the world known to have recovered from whaling, which almost drove the species to extinction. Blue whales are the largest animals on earth, measuring nearly 100 feet in length and weighing 190 tons as adults.

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"The recovery of California blue whales from whaling demonstrates the ability of blue whale populations to rebuild under careful management and conservation measures," lead author Cole Monnahan of the University of Washington, said in a press release.

Monnahan and his team believe there are about 2,200 California blue whales in existence. That number seems low, but it actually represents about 97 percent of the historical level, according to the researchers.

The term "California" is somewhat of a misnomer, considering the range of these behemoths. They are at their most visible while at feeding grounds 20 to 30 miles off the California coast, but they are actually found along the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean from the equator up into the Gulf of Alaska.

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The researchers used multiple methods to estimate the California blue whale population, including acoustic data. This helped them to tease the California blue whales apart from those belonging to another population in waters off of Japan and Russia. The whales appear to be different from each other, extending to their calls.

The one piece of bad news here is that the researchers think the number of California blue whales struck by ships is likely above allowable limits.

There are likely at least 11 blue whales struck a year along the U.S. West Coast, which is above the "potential biological removal" of 3.1 whales per year allowed by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.

But the new findings predict that there could be an 11-fold increase in vessels before there is a 50 percent chance that the California blue whale population will drop below what is considered "depleted" by regulators.

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"Even accepting our results that the current level of ship strikes is not going to cause overall population declines, there is still going to be ongoing concern that we don't want these whales killed by ships," said co-author Trevor Branch.

He continued, "We think the California population has reached the capacity of what the system can take as far as blue whales."

Monnahan added, "Our findings aren't meant to deprive California blue whales of protections that they need going forward. California blue whales are recovering because we took actions to stop catches and start monitoring. If we hadn't, the population might have been pushed to near extinction–an unfortunate fate suffered by other blue whale populations."

"It's a conservation success story."

Photo: A blue whale. Credit: ThinkStock

Introduction

Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.

Humpback Whale

What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.

Polar Bear

While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.

Sea Otter

This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.

Sea Walrus

Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.

Manatee

Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.

Harbor Seal

Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.