Beloved Humpback Whale Nicknamed Fran Killed By Ship Off California Coast

by Lauren Boisvert
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A beloved 49-foot-long humpback whale named Fran was killed offshore in California recently. Her injuries are consistent with a ship strike, according to a necropsy done by the Marine Mammal Center and the California Academy of Sciences. Fran’s injuries include a dislocated skull and a fractured vertebra.

Fran washed up in Half Moon Bay on Monday, August 29. According to the Associated Press, she is the fifth whale killed by a ship in the Bay Area this year. She leaves behind a female calf, and it is currently unknown what will happen to her.

Fran was nicknamed by Ferd Bergholz, an avid whale watcher. He saw the whale so many times on his excursions that he went to the Oceanic Society and had her officially named after his late wife. Bergholz posted on Facebook when he learned of Fran’s death.

“I am very sad to report that ‘Fran,’ the Humpback Whale that I named after my late wife Fran, was the victim of a ship strike and washed up on a beach in Half Moon Bay,” he wrote. “There is no word yet about the calf she had this year. They were together in Monterey Bay a couple of months ago. A Very Sad Day.”

Ted Cheesman, who runs Happywhale, a whale watching database, announced Fran’s death on the website. “She was the most popular whale in California, encountered by many in Monterey Bay until her death from a ship strike in August of 2022,” he wrote. Before she died, he had recorded 277 Fran sightings.

Fran the Humpback Whale Killed By Ship Strike, Bay Area Residents Mourn

The only bright spot in this story is that Fran’s calf was seen feeding on her own in June. Whale watcher Don Baccus was present for the sighting. He wrote on Facebook, “We saw the calf surface lunging, scattering anchovies every which way, ventral pouch filled with water and possibly fish, not that much later. The calf seemed well on its way to being able to feed.”

The calf attempting to feed on her own doesn’t necessarily mean she has weaned, or that she doesn’t still rely on Fran to survive. But, it gives local whale watchers and scientists hope that she will make it.

According to a 2017 study by Point Blue Conservation Science, 22 humpback whales are killed by ship strikes every year. And this is just off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. But, researcher Cotton Rockwood said that “less than 17%” of whales that are killed by ships never make it to the shore. That’s because the majority of them sink. Additionally, if the deep waters are cold enough, they never come to the surface again. So, these numbers are a conservative estimate at best. There’s a possibility that there are many more whales killed every year.

The hope with the study, and with Fran’s story, is that shipping routes and commercial boating will be re-evaluated: mostly extending the areas where ships must slow their speed and watch for wildlife. There are also apps that track whale movement and migration patterns, which can be helpful for commercial ships.

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