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Fran the humpback whale leaping out of the water
Press Release

Humpback Whale Killed by Suspected Ship Strike Was One of the Most Well-Known Whales in California

August 31, 2022
  • Species conservation
  • Pathology

Humpback whale killed by a suspected ship strike was one of the most well-known whales in California

Scientists at The Marine Mammal Center, the world’s largest marine mammal hospital, and their partners at Happywhale, a global collection of whale sighting data, have confirmed that the humpback whale that washed ashore Sunday in Half Moon Bay was a well-known individual named Fran. 

The Happywhale database has recorded 277 sightings of Fran since her birth in 2005, making her the most popular whale in California. Fran was sighted most often in the Monterey Bay Area.

The death of Fran is incredibly tragic, given that ship strikes on whales can be avoided.

“The death of Fran is incredibly tragic, given that ship strikes on whales can be avoided,” says Kathi George, Director of Field Operations & Response at The Marine Mammal Center. “Everyone, including shipping companies, wants to protect these magnificent giants, and we need ships to slow down in vessel speed reduction (VSR) areas as well as when whales are around.”

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Deadly ship strikes are most easily solved by ships reducing their speed in known whale habitat. NOAA issues seasonal voluntary speed reduction requests within its west coast national sanctuaries with the goal of reducing the risk of fatal ship strikes to whales, including endangered blue, fin and humpback whales. Over 60% of ships currently reduce their speed in these seasonal zones, but we need to increase that percentage and take additional measures to avoid more deaths like Fran.

“Protecting endangered species and sanctuary resources is a priority issue for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS),” says Jennifer Stock, Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries media liaison.

“To address this issue, the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank Sanctuary Advisory Councils formed a Joint Ship Strike Working Group to evaluate potential management options and provide feedback to the Advisory Councils on actions to reduce risk.”

The primary goal of the sanctuary ship strike work is to reduce the risk of lethal ship strikes to endangered and threatened blue, humpback, and fin whales by 50 percent in Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries.

Learn More About Our Work With Whales Like Fran

According to the Happywhale database, Fran was born in 2005 and was the daughter of Big Fin aka River, CRC-9019, and was named by Ferd Bergholz in honor of his late wife. Fran often wintered in Guerrero, Mexico, and was originally documented there by Katharina Audley of the Whales of Guerrero Research Project.

“Our team at Happywhale tracks individual whales in the North Pacific through automated image recognition AI to better understand and protect whales and their ocean environment,” says Ted Cheeseman, founder of Happywhale, a citizen science project that identifies the world's whales. “We know that Fran has been photographed all but one year since she was born. Learning of her death is especially sad since this year marks the first year she’s successfully brought a calf to feeding grounds.”

Learning of Fran's death is especially sad since this year marks the first year she’s successfully brought a calf to feeding grounds.

Experts at Happywhale also note that Fran was most recently seen this July in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary with her healthy calf.

A team of experts from The Marine Mammal Center and partners at the California Academy of Sciences performed a necropsy, or animal autopsy, on Fran earlier this week to determine the cause of death. Their findings indicated blunt force trauma due to a ship strike. Humpback whales frequent the California coast to feed during the summer and fall months before migrating south to their winter calving and mating grounds off the coast of Mexico.

The public can play an important role in the conservation of whales by reporting whale sightings to the Center’s website at MarineMammalCenter.org/whale-sighting or sharing photos of whales with Happywhale at https://happywhale.com/submitMedia.

To report a dead whale or whale in distress, call the Center’s rescue hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325). All marine mammals are federally protected, and the public should not approach any whale, alive or dead.

2022 San Francisco Bay Area Whale Responses

7 gray whales, 3 humpback whales
1 malnutrition, 1 suspect orca predation, 4 ship strikes, 4 undetermined


March 5, 2022: adult female gray whale, Limantour Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore; cause of death: malnutrition 

April 4, 2022: subadult female gray whale, Muir Beach, Golden Gate National Recreation Area; cause of death: ship strike 

April 5, 2022: adult male gray whale, Alameda; cause of death: unknown, only limited samples taken and no necropsy performed 

April 29, 2022: adult male gray whale, Rockaway Beach, Pacifica; cause of death: ship strike

May 13, 2022: adult female gray whale, Fort Funston, San Francisco; cause of death: ship strike

May 20, 2022: adult male gray whale, Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, Mountain View; cause of death: unknown, only limited samples taken and no necropsy performed 

June 19, 2022: adult male gray whale, Slide Ranch, Marin County, cause of death: unknown, only limited samples taken and no necropsy performed 

July 14, 2022: humpback whale, North Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore, cause of death: undetermined 

July 17, 2022: subadult female humpback whale, Sharp Park, Pacifica, cause of death: suspect orca predation 

August 28, 2022: adult female humpback whale, Manhattan Beach, Half Moon Bay, cause of death: ship strike


For more information or to set up an interview on this topic, please contact us at media@tmmc.org.



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Header image © Doug Croft / Blue Ocean Whale Watch

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Kathi George
Humpback Whale