Strong turnout thanks whales and shows opposition to seismic testing off SLO County coast

Sarah Bellum shares information about proposed seismic testing during Saturday's "Thank you whales" event at Port San Luis.
Sarah Bellum shares information about proposed seismic testing during Saturday's "Thank you whales" event at Port San Luis. Tribune photo

Hundreds of people turned out Saturday at Port San Luis to celebrate the recent sightings of humpback whales in San Luis Bay and signal their opposition to seismic studies planned offshore of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The studies would involve shooting high-decibel sounds into the ocean to map the undersea earthquake faults near the plant. Organizers of Saturday’s demonstration said the loud sounds could significantly harm the hearing of marine mammals such as whales and possibly even cause deaths.

Having the whales swim into Port San Luis two weeks ago to feed on fish — with the whales even poking their heads out of the ocean to the delight of onlookers — dramatically showed the presence of such mammals in local waters, said Joey Racano of Los Osos, who organized the demonstration.Having the whales show up “is a game changer,” he said.

Racano estimated that 500 people attended the morning demonstration, which he called “Thank you whales!” on the Facebook page alerting residents about the event.

Racano encouraged participants to mail letters to the California Coastal Commission urging the agency not to allow PG&E to conduct the seismic mapping. PG&E operates Diablo Canyon.

Blair Jones, a PG&E spokesman, said the mapping is being done at the direction of the California Energy Commission. The work was accelerated following last year’s nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Nuclear reactors and their backups were swamped after a tsunami sent waves crashing ashore. The facilities remain closed, and highly radioactive fuel rods have yet to be cleaned up.

The seismic surveying that is planned calls for a ship to lower sonic equipment into the ocean from Cambria to Guadalupe and emit extremely loud blasts of sound into the ocean every 15 seconds. Sound waves will penetrate the sea floor, go into the Earth’s crust, and echo back to the surface, where instruments will then create a three-dimensional geologic picture showing where faults might be.

Trained observers will be in aircraft to look for any marine life before testing would begin, Jones said. Half an hour before the start of any sound emissions, a low-energy blast will be sent into the water to scare off any wildlife. Observers will be on the research vessel as well, Jones said. If any animal is seen swimming into the testing area, all work will cease, he said.

The State Lands Commission is requiring PG&E to do the tests in November and December, when the fewest marine mammals might be near, Jones said. Most of the testing can be done this year, but a final third will have to wait until the same time next year.

“In the aftermath of Fukushima tragedy in Japan, people are understandably concerned about the seismic nature of the area surrounding Diablo Canyon,” Jones said. “We are being responsive to their concerns and are taking every necessary action, including accelerated completion of studies, to assure our customers and the residents of San Luis Obispo County that the seismic safety of Diablo Canyon is a top priority.”

The seismic testing is part of a $64 million study PG&E is doing to better understand the faults near the plant.

One participant at the event said the seismic research was not the best way to achieve that goal. Lisa Coffman of Los Osos and her 10-year-old daughter, Jenna, made a whale-shaped sign to thank the humpbacks for their arrival off Avila Beach about two weeks ago. For the better part of a week, the whales stayed near Port San Luis to feed on “bait balls” of anchovies and sardines. Dolphins, seals and thousands of birds were also attracted, resulting in a remarkable show of wildlife that drew crowds to Avila and the nearby harbor.

“We came out a few weeks ago to see the whales, and it was such a moving experience,” Coffman said. “They are such a great resource — we need to protect them.”

Coffman understands the need to map seismic faults but wonders whether there is a different way to do it.

“I’m not a scientist, but sometimes I feel like we don’t explore all the other” possibilities, she said.