Ship strikes are a leading cause of whale deaths worldwide and kill more than 80 fin, humpback, and blue whales on the U.S. west coast each year. Many of these ships are enormous – waterborne towers that are often unable to detect whales or their spouts.
This has led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to establish speed reduction programs along both coasts to protect endangered right whales in the Atlantic Ocean (via “Right Whale Slow Zones”) and humpback, gray and blue whales in the Pacific Ocean (through a voluntary speed reduction program). These measures are highly effective at preventing vessels from fatally colliding with whales by 80 – 90 percent, but are not adopted by all maritime ships.
“One of our goals is to provide real-time whale presence data that will help ships know when to slow down,” said Benioff Ocean Initiative scientist, Morgan Visalli. “In 2019, only 44% of the shipping industry followed the voluntary speed limit — we’d like to see that get closer to 100%.”
Nevertheless, because shipping paths often overlap with whale migration routes and feeding grounds, vessel collisions remain a persistent problem for these already threatened species – earlier this summer, at least 30 blue whales were observed feeding around the Los Angeles – Long Beach shipping lanes.
That is why the Benioff Ocean Initiative, along with its partners across multiple U.S. institutions – including NOAA – launched Whale Safe earlier this week, an online application that detects the presence of blue, humpback and fin whales in near real-time.
“Unfortunately, 2018 and 2019 were the worst years on record for fatal whale-ship collisions off the coast of California,” said Visalli, who is also the project lead on Whale Safe. “We hope that data from the Whale Safe system can help to reverse that trend.”
Whale Safe uses underwater acoustic equipment that identify whale calls, forecasts of where whales are likely to feed based on oceanographic data, and reports of whale sightings. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is then used to determine the location of the whales. Compiling this information together produces a forecasts of whales that is analogous to the fire danger ratings system used by the National Park Service. Using this mapping and analysis tool will hopefully allow ships to determine the location of whales and avoid hitting them.
“No one wants to hit a whale. No one wants to see coastal commerce interrupted,” said Visalli. “We hope that the data delivered by the new technology will provide ship captains with the information they need to protect whales while ensuring efficient maritime commerce.”
The idea to develop technology that prevents collisions with whales was initially submitted by members of the public interested in resolving this issue. The Benioff Ocean Initiative then put forward $1.5 million towards developing a solution
Whale Safe is currently live in the Santa Barbara Channel, with future plans to expand to other domestic and international coastal regions.