Innovative New Whale Detection System Aims to Prevent Ships From Striking Animals

Whale Safe launches in Southern California waters to help reduce deaths of the iconic marine mammals

A humpback whale breaches off the coast near Alameda, California. Ships collide and kill an estimated 80 endangered whales a year off of the West Coast. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Southern California is home to the busiest port complex in the U.S. Nearly 500 ships passed through the 24-mile-wide Santa Barbara Channel en route to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in August alone. The same strip of water also hosts droves of giant whales. In summer, over the course of a single day, whale watching outfits routinely spot as many as 15 blue whales, many nearly 100 feet long, feeding in the channel alongside humpback whales and thousands of dolphins. This overlap creates an environment where ships sometimes strike and kill endangered blue, humpback and fin whales. The last two years have set successive records for the most whales killed by ship strikes off the California coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with 21 whales dying by the hulls of ships in 2018 and 2019 combined.

And researchers say that’s likely to be just a fraction of the true death toll. A 2017 paper published in the journal PLOS One estimated that more than 80 endangered whales are killed by ships each year along the U.S. West Coast. The same paper suggests NOAA and whale researchers may only find between 5 and 17 percent of the whales whose bodies have been broken by the bow of a ship, because their corpses tend to sink to the bottom rather than washing ashore. The fatal collisions scientists do record are often grisly. Many times a vessel will coast into port unaware of the pulverized whale draped across its bow. The ships are so large, many are 15 stories tall and more than 1,000 feet long, that they typically have no idea what’s happened until they reach port.

“I’ve seen the damage that a ship strike can do and it’s massive and traumatic,” says Nick Pyenson, the Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and author of the book Spying on Whales. “I’ve seen fractures that run clear across a 20-foot skull, jaw bones that have been snapped and cracked. If it’s not immediate death it’s horrific suffering that typically ends in death.”

Now, a team of researchers is launching an innovative new whale detection system called Whale Safe in Southern California waters to help mariners avoid collisions with the marine mammals and to grade shipping companies on their whale safety. The system produces daily alerts informing subscribers how likely ships are to encounter whales in the Santa Barbara Channel as well as a web-based interactive map showing the locations of individual whale detections. The team has shared the tool with key shipping companies, and officials at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach who are expected to share news of the launch.

The goal of Whale Safe is to provide mariners with the best, most up-to-date information available and to create more awareness, says Doug McCauley, a marine scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and director of its Benioff Ocean Initiative, which is launching and funding the project in collaboration with other research institutions. “These are 100-year-old animals that are ecosystem engineers carrying around thousands of trees worth of carbon and they’re being run over out there,” he says. “We want to help incentivize the people and companies who want to do the right thing to actually do it and be recognized for it.”

Whale Safe creates a near real-time map of where whales are swimming and how likely ships are to encounter them using data from three cutting-edge sources. First, a buoy equipped with an underwater microphone listens for whale songs in the Santa Barbara Channel and uses an algorithm to automatically identify the calls of humpback, fin and blue whales before beaming the detection to a satellite. Second, trained observers and citizen scientists use a smartphone app to report whale sightings from boats. Third, a newly developed mathematical model uses information gleaned from years of blue whale tagging studies and the latest oceanographic data (such as sea surface temperature and ocean currents) to predict where blue whales are most likely to be.

These three streams of data are all integrated in a single streamlined platform accessible via the web. “The combination of methods is ideal,” says Jaime Jahncke, a marine scientist at Point Blue Conservation Science who was not involved in the Whale Safe project. “Acoustic detection alone is not perfect and modelling alone is not perfect but the combination makes it much more robust. The multiple layers of data help give mariners the clearest picture of where whales are and could make Whale Safe very effective if mariners use it.”

Whale Safe Infographic
1. Acoustic monitoring instruments identify blue, humpback, and fin whale vocalizations 2. Observers record whale sightings aboard whale watch and tourism boats with a mobile app 3. Oceanographic data is used to predict where blue whales are likely to be each day, like weather forecasting for whales 4. The three near real-time whale data streams are compiled and validated 5. Whale information is disseminated to industry, managers, and the public (Nicolle R. Fuller, Sayo Studio)

In their preliminary conversations with shipping companies, McCauley says the Whale Safe team has gotten a lot of interest, but no commitments to use the platform right out of the box. Most companies want to take a look at the website and the alerts and see how the whole thing works before taking it on board.

“Nobody wants to hit a whale so whatever we can do to mitigate that we’re excited to pursue,” says John Berge, a vice president with the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “More and better data is always an improvement. Having a better idea of where whales are and their concentrations at certain times of year will allow ships to make more dynamic speed and routing decisions.”

Following its launch today, Whale Safe could see a wide range of user groups, says Morgan Visalli, a marine scientist at UCSB who led the Whale Safe project. Curious scientists or members of the public might peruse the locations of whales off their coast, while port officials or the U.S. Coast Guard may decide to push out alerts to ships in their area based on whale detections made by the system. In the case of the shipping industry, Visalli says some companies have indicated it would work best for them if an operations manager on shore signs up to receive the data, and then disseminates it amongst their fleet. Visalli adds that the Whale Safe team is anxious for feedback once more mariners are able to interact with the system.

Some parts of the Whale Safe are already in use in other parts of the world. Acoustic whale detection systems are in use on the East Coast of the U.S. and an app called Whale Alert has been mapping the locations of sightings by humans on the West Coast since 2014. But Whale Safe is the first platform to bring all the best available, near real-time data on whales under one digital roof. Sean Hastings, the resource protection coordinator for NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, says Whale Safe combines layers of data in a matter of hours that might have once taken his team up to a month to merge.

In the Santa Barbara Channel, where Whale Safe’s efforts are concentrated, shipping lanes have been shifted to avoid whales and what’s known as a voluntary speed reduction zone was put into effect in 2007 in response to the deaths of five blue whales killed by ship strikes in just a few months. These voluntary speed limits currently request that ships slow down to 10 knots during whale season, which usually runs from May to November. But even after a more than a decade on the books and various incentive programs only 44 percent of ships slowed down on their way into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2019. Near San Francisco Bay, cooperation is only slightly better at around 50 percent.

Berge says the ships that don’t slow down may be more concerned with adhering to a strict schedule, may be unfamiliar with local regulations or may in fact be slowing down, just not all the way to 10 knots. “I like to think that continual outreach on this topic will continue to boost the compliance,” he says.

Researchers examine a dead blue whale killed by a ship. (Craig Hayslip, Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute via ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Scientists say slowing down makes the impacts that do occur less deadly and may give the whales and the ships a better opportunity to avoid the collision in the first place. “I think of whales as being like giant kids,” says McCauley. “If they’re wrapped up in feeding and socializing, they’re not focused on looking out for ships. We ask cars to slow down around schools to keep kids safe, and these speed restrictions for whales are the same idea.”

Research suggests mandatory slow down zones aimed at protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale have had some positive results. A forthcoming paper by researchers with Point Blue estimates that if 95 percent of ships slowed down in the voluntary speed reduction zones off San Francisco it could decrease humpback and blue whale deaths by as much as 30 percent.

Many whale species have made historic recoveries after being nearly exterminated by human hunting, but those recoveries aren’t bulletproof. When it comes to endangered blue whales in the eastern Pacific, even one whale is significant. “NOAA’s most recent assessment for blue whales says that if we lose more than one animal each year, which we do, then we’re not meeting our population growth targets,” says Hastings.

Whale Safe will be issuing report cards for shipping companies based on their vessels’ cooperation with the voluntary speed reduction zone that NOAA seasonally activates in the Santa Barbara Channel in hopes of reducing fatal ship strikes. Whale Safe uses public location data transmitted by special transponders on ships to calculate their speeds and judge whether they slow down when they’re steaming through the whales’ dining room.

Though the results are only now available to the public, Whale Safe has already produced some assessments for shipping companies’ adherence to the slow-down zones in 2020. The world’s second largest shipping company, Mediterranean Shipping Company, gets an “A.” Its vessels slowed down to the requested ten knots in the voluntary speed reduction zones 94 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Ocean Network Express, the sixth largest shipping company in the world, gets a “D” for only backing off on the throttle for whales 35 percent of the time.

McCauley points out that if the system helps motivate more vessels to slow down for whales, humans will reap benefits too. When ships slow down they burn less fuel, which cuts down on their planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and the release of pollutants like nitrogen and sulphur oxides.

Hastings says Whale Safe could also help inform other interventions like amending the paths of the shipping lanes themselves or extending the envelope of speed reduction zones. If Whale Safe proves effective during its first year of deployment, the Bay Area could be its next stop. But the biggest question surrounding the project’s ability to make an initial impact is whether it results in more ships reducing their speed when whales are present.

“I’m hopeful that the added confidence that Whale Safe will bring to say ‘Hey there really are whales here today’ will encourage more shipping companies to slow down,” says Hastings. “But it also provides resource managers like myself with amazing data to assess whether these speed reductions should become mandatory. Because while we’re grateful for the cooperation we’ve gotten with the voluntary speed reduction program so far, it’s not good enough.”

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