“The folks on these ships don’t want to hit whales — but so often the mariners don’t even know they’ve hit a whale until they come into port, because these ships are so massive,” Morgan Visalli, project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative, told Mongabay in an interview. “There’s been a call for more technology and more real time data that we’re hoping to meet.”

Benioff, an applied research organization within the University of California, Santa Barbara, led Whale Safe’s development. An array of partners contributed: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Texas A&M University at Galveston, UC Santa Cruz, the University of Washington, and the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Whale Safe is, at its core, a computer program that both logs whale detections and predicts whale movements. To do so, it gathers data from three different sources. One is an acoustic monitoring buoy in the Santa Barbara Channel that automatically detects nearby whale sounds, from the deep, mournful moans of blue whales to the gregarious melodies of humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) and the low chirps of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus).

Project leaders have recruited observers on whale-watching boats, who can reliably identify local species, to log the whales they spot. Anyone with a mobile phone can contribute as well, using an app from another monitoring system called Whale Alert.

Lastly, the computer program feeds oceanographic data collected by buoys on the previous day, like sea-surface temperature and salinity, into a mathematical model that creates a three-dimensional simulation of current ocean conditions. It cross-references the simulation with a model of blue whale migration along the coast that scientists developed by satellite-tracking more than 100 blue whales.

“It turns out the ocean itself can tell us a lot about when and where whales are going to be present,” said Briana Abrahms, a biologist at the University of Washington who led the blue-whale monitoring effort, at a press briefing on Sept. 17.

The buoy for acoustic monitoring of whales near the Santa Barbara Channel shipping lanes that provides data to the Whale Safe system. Image courtesy of Benioff Ocean Initiative.

The Whale Safe model combines these three data streams to issue a “whale presence rating.” This rating works like the fire danger rating you might see next to Smokey the Bear at the entrance to a national park. On the Whale Safe website, regions where whales are likely present appear red. Those where whales are less probable appear yellow or green.

Subscribed vessels and shipping companies receive automated email alerts when the rating changes. Anyone can browse the website’s more in-depth map, which displays recent detections and current shipping traffic.

This three-pronged system differentiates Whale Safe from other systems, such as Whale Alert, which started in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary just off Boston, Massachusetts, and now operates on both coasts. Unlike Whale Safe, Whale Alert identifies whales through an array of several acoustic buoys and doesn’t feature predictive computer modeling of where whales might be present.

“It’s helpful for people all over the world to be taking their own approaches to ship strikes, because that’s how we come up with the best solutions,” Visalli said.

The map represents areas with high risk of collisions between ships and large whales. Click here to enlarge. Data sources: Cates, K., et al (2017). Strategic Plan to Mitigate the Impacts of Ship Strikes on Cetacean Populations: 2017-2020. 17; Parks, S. E., et al. (2012). Dangerous dining: Surface foraging of North Atlantic right whales increases risk of vessel collisions. Biology Letters, 8(1), 57–60. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2011.0578. Image courtesy of Benioff Ocean Initiative.

Whale Safe’s developers said they hope one day to expand the system to include multiple buoys and to deploy it in coastal areas around the world. For now, the congested Santa Barbara Channel provides an apt test site. Ship collisions with large whales have been a problem in this spot for more than a decade. According to Abrahms, the channel sees a confluence of exceptional whale foraging habitat along the Channel Islands with the two busiest ports on the U.S. West Coast.

“It’s a perfect storm, with huge amounts of ships coming through one of the favorite spots of whales to stop and eat and gorge on food as they’re migrating up the coast,” she told Mongabay in an interview.

The map represents sightings of blue, fin, and humpback whales in and around the Santa Barbara Channel from 2019 through August 2020. Click here to enlarge. Data sources: The Whale Alert app and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary aerial surveys. Image courtesy of Benioff Ocean Initiative.

Though several species take advantage of these feeding grounds, the Whale Safe creators chose to focus their model on blue whales. Blue whales are both endangered and the species most vulnerable to ship strikes in the region. This may be partially because they don’t seem to react as strongly as other species to avoid approaching ships, and because they tend to feed in habitats that overlap with shipping routes.

The Whale Safe website also features a “report card” that grades shipping companies’ adherence to whale protection measures. This program tracks large ships using their automatic identification system (AIS), a radio-based traffic system that logs a vessel’s position and speed. The report cards grade whether vessels are slowing down to a voluntary 10-knot (18.5-kilometer-per-hour or 11.5 mile-per-hour) speed limit that NOAA has enacted in certain areas. Research shows that when vessels travel at 10 knots or less, a collision is much less likely to kill the whale.

Since 2014, an incentive system has encouraged vessels along the West Coast to pump the proverbial brakes. But according to Visalli, data showed that in 2019 less than half of ships along this route opted to comply.

“We’re hoping to just bring a bit more transparency to what’s going on with shipping in and around these ports,” Visalli said.

Scientists outside of Whale Safe are optimistic about the program, but cautiously so.

Cotton Rockwood, a senior marine ecologist with the California-based nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science, works with policymakers, scientists and the shipping industry to research and implement solutions for ship strikes. He told Mongabay that Point Blue has heard complaints that since mariners don’t necessarily see whales on their routes, requests to slow down can seem arbitrary and pointless. He reported shippers feel especially frustrated when slowdown zones change from year to year, as they have in the past.

“This kind of multiple sources, multiple lines of evidence that Whale Safe has may be important in strengthening that awareness that whales are out there,” Rockwood said.

John Calambokidis, a senior research biologist and co-founder of the nonprofit Cascadia Research Collective in Washington state, who has worked extensively on ship strikes, wrote in an email that he supports the program for the awareness it raises. However, he said he’s concerned that the combination of acoustic detection and voluntary slowdowns has limited value.

Calambokidis said his work has found that an acoustic detection doesn’t necessarily convey just how many whales are in an area. This is particularly true for blue whales, whose calls change depending on their sex, age, behavior, and the season.

“That means there can be many whales present and few calls being produced, or conversely just one whale producing lots of calls,” he wrote. He added that the acoustic detector will only tell ships that there is a whale in the channel area, but not whether it is actually in or near the shipping lane.

Finally, he noted that requests for ships to slow down voluntarily haven’t been very effective.

“I think there has been a strong desire to find a technological solution and ignore that we already have some tools available we have not fully implemented,” Calambokidis wrote. These include making slowdowns mandatory and shifting the shipping lanes outside of the Channel Islands. Similar regulations have helped reduce, but not eliminate,ship strikes to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) on the U.S. East Coast.

The U.S. Coast Guard examined relocating the shipping lane outside the Channel Islands in 2011. The U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center opposed the move because it would bring the shipping lane close to the Navy’s largest missile test range. Ultimately the Coast Guard made a more conservative change.

For Whale Safe to work, it needs buy-in from shipping companies. This includes willingness to sacrifice a bit of their bottom line by slowing down for whales.

Visalli emphasized that Whale Safe is working directly with the shipping industry to make sure the program is “useful, and to make sure it’s used.” She said she hopes it opens an important dialogue about a problem that, to many mariners, remains invisible until a dead whale ends up draped across their ship’s bow.

“We’re hoping that it can be a conversation, and that we can listen as well,” Visalli said.

Banner image: Researchers examine a dead blue whale killed by a collision with a ship in 2014. Image by Craig Hayslip/ Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Claudia Geib is a science writer and editor based on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Claudia’s work focuses on environmental, climate, and wildlife science, with a special focus on the ocean and marine animals. You can find links to her work at her website: www.claudiageib.com. Claudia is also the 2020 Sue Palminteri WildTech Reporting Fellow, which honors the memory of Mongabay Wildtech editor Sue Palminteri by providing opportunities for students to gain experience in conservation technology and writing. You can support this program here.

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