THE BLUE WHALE (at 80 feet and 440,000 pounds) is the largest animal known ever to have existed--even bigger than dinosaurs--yet it is no match for a massive cargo ship.
Ship strikes are estimated to kill more than 80 endangered whales off the West Coast of the U.S. each year, posing a major threat to their recovery. Risk especially is high in the Santa Barbara Channel, where important feeding grounds for blue and humpback whales overlap with busy shipping lanes used by thousands of vessels.
With funding from the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, four research groups have spent almost a year attempting to develop methods to detect whales when they are in a high-traffic zone. By designing a system to alert shipping vessels to the proximity of whales, helping ships to know when to slow down, the scientists hope to reduce risk of whale mortality without imposing significant burdens on marine commerce.
"We [are trying] to build a high IQ system to reduce the risks faced by these endangered whales," says Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology at UCSB.
Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who heads one of the research teams, is testing the use of underwater microphones to listen for whale calls. These acoustic monitoring devices use an algorithm to automatically detect the sounds of blue, humpback, and fin whales in near real-time.
Ana Sirovic, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is helping to improve and evolve these algorithms through analysis of one of the world's largest libraries of endangered whale recordings. Sirovic's team also is studying how underwater sounds travel in the Santa Barbara Channel to optimize the placement of a whale acoustic detection array.
Sound, though, is not the only way to find elusive whales. Thermal imaging cameras can detect these warm-blooded mammals in a cold ocean. Another of the funded groups, led by Daniel P. Zitterbart of Woods Hole, is working to develop and deploy a cost-effective thermal imaging system to detect whales automatically in the channel.
"This project is an ideal case to get science to really help conservation," says Zitterbart. "After we have been laying the groundwork for thermal imaging-based whale detection for nearly a decade, this project has afforded us the opportunity to evaluate how this...