An online tool to detect and better protect – in near real-time – whales inhabiting the Santa Barbara Channel is now live. Whale Safe is the product of a collaboration among marine scientists with the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UC Santa Barbara and top whale researchers from across the country.
“We’re excited to finally launch it into the world,” said Morgan Visalli, a Benioff Ocean Initiative (BOI) scientist and Whale Safe project lead. The result of three years of work between BOI researchers and colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Texas A&M University at Galveston, the University of Washington, UC Santa Cruz, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Whale Safe is a mapping and analysis tool that displays near real-time data to help prevent ships and whales from colliding, an event that happens far too often off the West Coast.
“Unfortunately, 2018 and 2019 were the worst years on record for fatal whale-ship collisions off the coast of California,” Visalli said. “We hope that data from the Whale Safe system can help to reverse that trend.”
The high number of collisions is due to a confluence of several factors, she explained. For one thing, whales often feed, migrate, rest, mate and socialize in coastal areas. Blue whales, the largest animals that have ever lived, are currently found along our coast’s cold, krill-filled waters, which has been especially busy this summer. Aggregations of 30 blue whales were observed feeding in the Santa Barbara Channel in early August.
Unfortunately, the whales’ ancient migration paths overlap with some of the busiest shipping routes in the world, with cargo ships moving through the Santa Barbara Channel to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Marine shipping is an important industry to California and to the world, transporting an estimated 90% of global goods.
The vessels are enormous – often the size of skyscrapers and more than ten times the length of an adult blue whale. They tower so high above the surface of the ocean that whale spouts are difficult for ship captains to detect, let alone slow down for or avoid. Researchers estimate that more than 80 endangered blue, humpback and fin whales are killed by vessel collisions every year off the West Coast alone.
To help protect the endangered animals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and partners have, since 2007, implemented voluntary speed reduction programs to slow ships down as they crowd into the channel with the whales. The program has a voluntary 10 knot (11.5 mph) speed limit for all large ships transiting through the important whale habitat in and around the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Research has shown that speed limits, when followed, appear to reduce the number of fatal collisions by 80-90% in some cases.
But while a slowly growing number of global shipping companies are participating in the voluntary program, more than half of ship transits in the Channel in 2019 still exceeded the requested 10 knot slow zone. It’s an amount the researchers hope will decrease as the Whale Safe monitoring system alerts users to the presence of whales in the area.
“One of our goals is to provide real-time whale presence data that will help ships know when to slow down,” Visalli said. “In 2019, only 44% of the shipping industry followed the voluntary speed limit – we’d like to see that get closer to 100%.”
To help ships “see” the whales, the minds behind the Whale Safe tool brought together several technologies: an underwater acoustic system that automatically detects whale calls; near real-time forecasts of whale feeding grounds based on dynamic oceanographic data; and a mobile app used by community scientists to record whale sightings.