Collisions with shipping vessels are among the most common cause of death in large whales. Along the West Coast, alone, scientists estimate that ships are responsible for the death of around 80 endangered whales every year.
This usually happens due to busy shipping routes overlapping with whale habitats in coastal areas. When massive cargo ships travel quickly through these areas, there is a high risk of collision since whales are often unable to swim out of the way when a ship approaches.
Seeking to protect these already vulnerable animals, researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara developed Whale Safe — a tool that listens to the calls of whales to help warn captains when the giant mammals are nearby, so they can slow down and avoid a potentially fatal impact.
The technology consists of an acoustic monitoring system that’s aided by microphones mounted on the seafloor, connected to buoys with a satellite transmitter. Using AI, the system identifies the whale species by scanning the audio file, creating a visualization of the sound that’s later verified by scientists.
“It’s kind of like sheet music but for whale calls,” says Morgan Visalli, the lead scientist on Whale Safe, who’s working on the project with several other partners, including NOAA, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and others. “We call it a pitch track, and they’re very easy for these acousticians to then look at and quickly be able to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s definitely a blue whale call. That’s definitely a humpback whale call.’”
Apart from capturing the whale calls in near real-time, the system also factors in certain environmental conditions, such as water temperature and ocean currents, to create a movement model for the creature and predict its trajectory. And to make the model even more accurate, the system also uses data from community scientists on whale-watching boats who use an app to report sightings.
All the data is then compiled to create a danger rating that lets captains know the risk that a whale is nearby, encouraging them to slow down and thus avoid fatal collisions.
Whale Safe will first be launched in the Santa Barbara Channel, near one of the busiest port areas in the world. If successful, the novel technology could be replicated in other whale-ship collision hotspots around the world.