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Morro Bay whale watchers have “mixed feelings” about offshore wind projects

Morro Bay Whale Watching boat docked at Morro Bay Harbor.
Photo by Amanda Wernik
Morro Bay Whale Watching boat docked at Morro Bay Harbor.

This month's lease sales for the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area were a victory for renewable energy advocates. But the offshore wind project is also raising concerns about its potential impact on the whales that migrate through coastal California's waters every year.

A hidden gem for whale watching

It was a sunny, cloudless morning at the Morro Bay harbor. Tourists from all over California eagerly boarded a yellow whale-watching boat, called the “Freedom." The boat briefly stopped at a red buoy with over a dozen sea lions crammed on its surface. The tourists excitedly snapped photos.

Morro Bay Whale Watching Captain Dakota Osborne searching for whales
Amanda Wernik
Morro Bay Whale Watching Captain Dakota Osborne searching for whales

Morro Bay is teeming with life, but these waters likely will someday be filled with something else: giant, floating offshore wind turbines.

According to the US Bureau of Land Management (BOEM), three leases in the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area sold for over $400 million. In total, they span about 376 miles of the ocean about 20 miles offshore of Morro Bay and Cambria.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” said Morro Bay Whale Watching Captain Dakota Osborne, behind the wheel of the Freedom. “I think green energy is great.”

BOEM estimates the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area has the capacity to produce up to 2.9 gigawatts of clean electricity, which is enough carbon-free energy to power millions of homes.

“It’s been a big topic of discussion, particularly for boaters and people involved with the local marine activities here for a few years now,” Osborne added. “I’ve heard a lot of different things about it; I’ve heard these things could be up to 600 feet tall, so it’s an enormous scale project.”

Morro Bay was selected for its close proximity to ports and its high wind speeds, but that day, the region’s usually-windy skies were still. The ocean was glassy and calm.

According to the Morro Bay Whale Watching crew, these are the ideal conditions for spotting whales. The Freedom was headed southwest towards the continental shelf, a nutrient-rich slope which Osborne called the “whale highway”. The crew hoped to catch a glimpse of humpback whales swimming along this highway as they migrated towards Mexico for the winter.

Osborne called Morro Bay a “hidden gem” for whale watching.

“A lot of people go to Monterey for whales, but Morro Bay has a good, healthy population of humpbacks that feed here for half the year and lots of gray whales passing through,” Osborne said.

Morro Bay Whale Watching boat leaving Morro Bay Harbor
Amanda Wernik
Morro Bay Whale Watching boat leaving Morro Bay Harbor.

An enormous, loud project

Osborne said he is concerned that noise from the Morro Bay wind projects could disturb the area’s whales. Whales and other cetaceans use sounds and vibrations as their primary means of communication and navigation through the water.

According to a report by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), the noise generated by pile driving from the construction of offshore wind farms was loud enough to be audible by harbor porpoises beyond 80 km from the source. It could also mask their communication at 30 to 40 km.

No studies have been conducted yet on the noise impacts of offshore wind construction on whales, so it is hard to say how much whales in California waters could be impacted.

“Having something of that scale kind of in the middle of their migratory corridor up and down the coast here is something I would like to see a bit more hard data on, as far as the amount of noise it’s going to put into the water, different distances from those turbines and the vibrations,” said Osborne.

Noise disturbances could potentially alter feeding, migration and reproduction behaviors. According to the WDC report, other possible impacts of offshore wind development on whales and other cetaceans could be potential entanglements with cables and collisions with rotating blades and maintenance vessels.

View from the Morro Bay Whale Watching captain's seat.
Photo by Amanda Wernik
View from the Morro Bay Whale Watching captain's seat.

However, these findings are not conclusive evidence that the California projects will have the same effects on wildlife. Scientists are still studying the potential impact the wind farms will have on whales and other wildlife in West Coast waters.

However, the project could also bring benefits to the region’s marine environment. Morro Bay Whale Watching Deckhand Amy McKellar said while she is concerned about the project, she thinks it could help the ocean ecosystem by creating artificial reefs.

“I think it could be great,” McKellar said. “I actually think it would create reef structure and potentially bring in some animals underwater.”

Osborne added it is not just the animals who could be affected. If whales someday come through this area in lesser numbers or not at all, it could impact his livelihood, too.

“I would hate to see the whales avoiding that area, potentially keeping many miles clear of it, even to the point where it impacts us here in Morro Bay and the whale watching,” Osborne said. “It might be that no whales want to come within 20, 30, 50 miles of that wind farm because of the noise and interference to them.”

Morro Bay is still years away from seeing wind turbines off its coast, so there is still a long way to go until it's clear whether or not it will be a major threat to California’s migratory whales.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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