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Online tool tracking whales in near real time to prevent ship collisions

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Posted at 11:00 AM, Apr 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-04 11:00:48-04

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — From refrigerators to smartphones, the U.S. relies on megaships to deliver most goods. But busy ocean highways now pose one of the deadliest threats to endangered whales

"These cargo ships are up to 1,000 feet. Even when you have the largest animal in the world, they're no match for something that's 10, 20 times their size," said Callie Steffen, a project scientist with the Benioff Ocean Initiative (BOI) at UC Santa Barbara.

BOI works to leverage the power of science to solve ocean problems and inspire the replication of these successes.

Steffen says that in recent years, a record number of whales have been killed in ship collisions off California's coast and around the world.

"A lot of times, they don't even know — until they get into port — that it happened," said Steffen. "More oftentimes than not, once a whale is hit and died, it will either sink, decompose, the ocean currents will take it away."

She says for each known case, 10 more likely go undetected.

"There was a need for more real-time whale data."

Steffen is the lead project scientist for Whale Safe, a technology-based mapping and analysis tool displaying whale and ship data in near real time for the Santa Barbara Channel.

An international highway for ships, the area is an important feeding ground and a migratory route for blue, fin, and humpback whales, all species that are still endangered or threatened.

“The ocean is just going to get busier and busier," said Steffen. "Which is why these solutions are so important to put into place now."

The online tool combines several technologies:

  • An underwater acoustic system that automatically detects whale calls
  • Near real-time forecasts of whale feeding grounds based on dynamic oceanographic data
  • A mobile app used by community scientists to record whale sightings

Developed and deployed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and monitored by Texas A&M Galveston scientists, the acoustic system detects whale calls using an underwater microphone 600 feet below the surface. Processed using an AI-powered computer, the data is then sent via satellite transmitter on the system’s surface buoy for review and confirmation.

Community scientists aboard local whale watching and tourism boats add whale observations using the Whale Alert and Spotter Pro mobile apps.

“To make it very easily digestible for anyone that's looking at this data, we put all those data streams through an algorithm that spits out what we call a 'whale presence rating'," said Steffen. "That rating will go anywhere from low to very high."

Using Whale Safe, ships can know when to slow down in the channel.

The tool also ranks vessels and shipping companies according to their rates of cooperation with NOAA’s voluntary speed restrictions in the Santa Barbara Channel.

"It is company to company on whether this is something they build in or not," said Steffen. "And we're seeing companies that are doing it fantastic and are consistently getting A's. And then we see companies that consistently are getting F's."

Because slowing down is voluntary, shipping schedules are one reason why a vessel might not comply.

Steffen says consumers can ask retailers for products delivered on whale-conscious ships.

"Every single thing sitting on my desk at one point was probably on a ship. So as the everyday consumer, we are connected to this," said Steffen. “Shipping companies are going to listen to their retailers — the Home Depot's of the world, Target's of the world, the Walmart’s of the world."

And Steffen says those companies listen to their consumers.

Captain and owner of Gone Whale Watching San Diego, Domenic Biagini wants to see Whale Safe deployed around the world.

"These are animals that are used to being the largest thing in the ocean. They don't get out of the way for anything, because they haven't had to," said Biagini. "The technology is there. We have the ability to alert these large ships and keep them from hitting these animals."

Utilizing small boats, his company provides intimate encounters with marine life.

“The more people that get to go out and see these animals, the more they're going to care about them," said Biagini. "That’s where I think our tours go a long way to helping these animals.”