The technological system aims to protect whales from ships

Scientists have developed a technological mapping tool to prevent ships from hitting whales in areas off America’s west coast.

The system is called Whale Safe. It uses equipment placed in the ocean to identify the presence of whales in the vicinity. The tool also records navigation activity and vessel speed. The collected data is then sent via satellite to scientists who study it and aim to provide guidance to ship operators.

The system’s developers say it produces near-real-time information about nearby whale movements.

Whale Safe now operates near ports in Southern California. It was recently released north into San Francisco Bay.

There is a problem in the bay with ships hitting whales. Wildlife officials reported the latest suspected case last month. A humpback whale washed ashore in San Francisco Bay with injuries suggesting the animal was killed by a ship strike.

The Marine Mammal Center near San Francisco said it was the fifth whale killed by a ship strike in the area this year. Wildlife officials note that the actual number of whales killed by ships is likely much higher, as the bodies of dead animals are rarely found.

Humpback whales visit California to feed in the summer and fall before migrating south to breed off the coast of Mexico. They are among the most endangered whales in the world. An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 remain in the wild. The Marine Mammal Center says the main threats facing humpback whales are strikes from ships and entanglement in fishing gear and debris.

The Whale Safe system is designed to identify and protect several different species, including humpback, blue, fin and gray whales. He uses three methods to do this. First, he uses floating devices – known as buoys – to record the sounds the whales make. Second, it uses computer models to process current and historical ocean data to predict where whales are most likely to be. Third, it allows trained spotters and citizens to report whale sightings via cell phone app.

A woman takes a picture while another onlooker takes a selfie in front of the massive whale carcass at a popular California surfing spot, Tuesday, April 26, 2016, in San Clemente, California. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

The Whale Safe Project is supported by the Marine Mammal Center and the Benioff Laboratory for Ocean Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Other organizations and government agencies are also collaborating on the project.

The system’s developers say Whale Safe’s expansion to San Francisco demonstrates that the system can be effectively deployed in additional areas of the United States and the world.

Officials from the Marine Mammal Center say they have plans to expand the system to other areas where whales face a high risk of being struck by ships. These areas include parts of the US East Coast. Globally, such areas include waters near Sri Lanka, Chile, Greece and Spain’s Canary Islands.

Whales are seen off the coast of Long Beach, Calif., from Harbor Breeze Cruises' whale-watching vessel La Espada, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Whales are seen off the coast of Long Beach, Calif., from Harbor Breeze Cruises’ whale-watching vessel La Espada, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Jeff Boehm is director of the Marine Mammal Center. He said the Whale Safe system combines the latest technology with mindfulness saving efforts “to create a solution to reduce the risk to whales”. Boehm added, “This is where technology meets Mother Nature for advantage of marine life.”

Douglas McCauley is director of the Benioff Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. He said in a statement that the killing of whales by ship strikes was an “avoidable problem”.

“We can no longer be passive watchers of endangered whales washing ashore on San Francisco beaches,” McCauley said. He added: “Whale Safe is an exciting gathering of marine scientists, technologists, conservation organisations, business leaders and government partners to do something about this problem.”

I’m Brian Lynn.

Brian Lynn wrote this story based on reports from the Marine Mammal Center, the Benioff Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, the Associated Press and Whale Safe.

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Words in this story

app n. a computer program that performs a special function, usually found on mobile phones

saving n. the protection of animals, plants and natural resources

saving n. beneficial or good effect

passive adj. letting things happen without taking concrete action


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