Can Scientists Protect North Atlantic Right Whales by Counting Them From Space?

A new collaboration between the New England Aquarium and the engineering firm Draper seeks to use satellite sonar and radar data to create a global watch

A mother and her calf are seen in this aerial image from 2005.
After seeing their numbers slashed due to overhunting in the 20th century, North Atlantic right whales still face plenty of threats, including ship strikes, habitat degradation and pollution. A mother and her calf are seen in this aerial image from 2005. NOAA/NMFS NOAA News via Flickr under  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Counting animal populations is one of the key ways that conservationists gauge the wellbeing of a given species. But certain creatures are hard to track—like whales, which can traverse thousands of miles of miles across the ocean, sometimes to remote feeding grounds. Now, the New England Aquarium in Boston is collaborating with Draper, a Massachusetts-based engineering firm, on a cutting-edge project to monitor whale species—one that involves counting the marine mammals from space.

Experts will gather satellite sonar and radar data, relying on sources ranging from European space agencies to amateur radio operators, according to the Associated Press. The project, aptly titled “Counting Whales from Space,” seeks to create a probability map of where whale species might be located, which will in turn allow conservationists to monitor where the animals are going, and why.

“If whales are moving out of one area and into another, what’s the reason for that?” asks John Irvine, Draper’s chief scientist for data analytics, in an interview with the AP. “Is it due to ocean warming? Is it changes in commercial shipping lanes? These are all questions we’ll be able to start answering once we have the data.”

Scientists often monitor whales through aerial surveys, which can be expensive and are susceptible to bad weather. Censuses have also been taken from boats and even high cliffs, but these approaches are relatively localized, while whale ranges can be very vast. There is an urgent need to pioneer better ways of tracking them because the marine mammals face a wide range of threats, including ship strikes, habitat degradation, and pollution.

Monitoring animals, including whales, from space is not a new idea. In the past, scientists have relied on high-resolution satellite imagery to survey populations of both larger animals, like elephant seals and polar bears, and smaller creatures such as emperor penguins and albatross. Like whales, these species exist in hard-to-access areas—like the frigid Arctic—making traditional census methods difficult.

In 2018, the British Antarctic Survey revealed that it had successfully used the WorldView-3 satellite to detect, count and describe four different whale species: fin whales, grey whales, humpbacks and southern right whales. The fin and grey whales were easier to spot because their coloration stood out more from their surroundings, but the high-resolution images were clear enough that scientists could make out the whales’ body shape, the size of their flippers, spray from their blowholes, and even their feces, Nature reported at the time.

Scientists have also relied on satellite imagery to study a mass whale stranding in a remote region of Chilean Patagonia, with the hope of one day using the technology to detect such events in real time and allow authorities to intervene before it’s too late.

Having a better sense of whales’ movements can help with conservation in several ways, like providing crucial information to ship captains moving through the animals’ habitat, the BBC reported in 2018. As apex predators, whales and other marine mammals are also considered “sentinels” of ocean health. Collecting information about them can, in other words, paint a broader picture of how aquatic ecosystems are faring.

Draper and the New England Aquarium have committed to raise a combined $1 million to the “Counting Whales from Space” project, which is still in development. Ultimately, experts hope to develop algorithms that will process all of the data they have collected, which, Irvine tells the AP, will ideally allow for a “global watch on whale movement.”