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The surprising way airplanes help whales in California

John-Michael Lee caught thresher sharks off Redondo Beach in California when he was a boy. “We’d float on a mat in the water, reach down with our hands and just catch them by the tail,” recalls John-Michael. “They were about three to four feet long, but most of that was tail.” “When I go diving now,” he remarks, “I don’t see many sharks anymore.” In 1999, the state of California decided it needed to do something to address this phenomenon and safeguard the health of its ocean and fisheries. Its answer was to create a string of underwater sanctuaries called marine protected areas.

By regulating activities such as fishing, recreation and research in these marine parks, California is giving sea life a chance to bounce back. A dotted line of protected waters now stretches the length of the state forming one of the world’s largest networks of marine protected areas.

For the past eight years, LightHawk volunteer pilots like John-Michael Lee have put their airplanes and piloting skills behind the effort to establish and manage these marine protected areas. Once or twice a month, he heads out to ready his small airplane to fly aerial surveys off the coast near his home in Southern California.

Flights for Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation (SMBRF) and Los Angeles Waterkeeper, which are granted through LightHawk, help scientists map boat traffic in state waters. Donating his time and airplane through LightHawk is not a purely selfless act. In addition to a day spent flying, John-Michael is able to help restore the underwater world he enjoys as a diver. And sometimes on a flight, he gets to see something truly spectacular.

Climbing into his Piper Cherokee is a tight squeeze, but when you spot a whale from 1,000 feet up, you forget about elbowroom. “When a pilot sees a whale in the water, the plane just turns toward that area,” says Tom Ford, a Connecticut transplant and former commercial fisherman who spends his days as Director of Marine Programs for SMBRF.

In addition to boats, Tom and his colleagues at SMBRF now track whales and dolphins during their bimonthly survey flights. “When we first embarked on the survey flights with LightHawk, we wanted to create an objective dataset that defined the extent of boating activities in state waters. Now we believe the information we collect during those flights can do so much more,” says Tom.

By knowing where cetaceans tend to congregate, large boats can be routed away from whale hotspots. Fewer ship strikes and less disruption of their natural behavior is achieved. This strategy has been successful in Massachusetts where vessels avoid the area around Stellwagen Bank, a popular foraging site off the tip of Cape Cod.  

Peering out the window of an airplane at 1,000 feet can tell you a lot about the success of kelp forest restoration below the surface. Flight after flight, a picture emerges of the density and patterns of commercial and recreational fishing boats. Seeing fishing in those areas means kelp reforestation efforts to improve fishing is working. As Tom explains, “this data helps us demonstrate that fishermen begin using the reefs once the kelp forest comes back.”

Information from the surveys is also being shared with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Scientists hope it will benefit the State’s spiny lobster Fishery Management Plan.

These Pacific Ocean, no-claw cousins to Maine lobsters support important commercial and recreational fisheries, and play a key role in the Southern California kelp forest ecosystem. Flights are enabling the team of scientists at SMBRF to collect finer scale geographic information than is sometimes reported in fishermen's logbooks. The data can also indicate geographically how the season tapers off as well as how effort moves around through the season.

John-Michael and his fellow volunteer pilots continue to fly survey flights each month for LightHawk to sustain and safeguard California’s underwater treasures. John-Michael looks forward to seeing more whales from the air and underwater.