Sustainability Environment

How can they count whales from space?


Story at a glance

  • A Massachusetts aquarium and engineering firm are developing a way to use satellites to keep tabs on whales all across the planet.
  • The project, called “Counting Whales From Space,” will take data ranging from space agencies to local radio operators to build a comprehensive map of where whales may be roaming.
  • The most prominent way of tracking whales currently involves plane and helicopter surveys, which can be expensive and dangerous.

Scientists in Massachusetts are collaborating on a project aiming to use satellite technology to count and track whales from space in an effort to better understand and protect the animals from extinction.

The Associated Press reports New England Aquarium of Boston and engineering firm Draper of Cambridge are working together using satellite, sonar and radar data to trace the migratory patterns of whales on a larger scale, and to keep count of just how many are in the world’s oceans. 

The project, dubbed “Counting Whales From Space,” will take data ranging from European space agencies to local radio operators and build a map of where in the vast ocean the whales might be. John Irvine, chief scientist for data analytics with Draper, told the AP this will allow conservation groups to monitor their movements.

“If whales are moving out of one area and into another, what’s the reason for that? Is it due to ocean warming? Is it changes in commercial shipping lanes?” Irvine said. “These are all questions we’ll be able to start answering once we have the data.” 

The ultimate goal of the project is to build the technology that uses special algorithms to process all the data. Irvine said the main idea is a “global watch on whale movement,” and the tech could potentially be used to monitor whales anywhere on the globe. 

The tech could help endangered whales internationally, but there’s a pressing need just off New England, where the endangered North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whale species in the world. Researchers estimate there are about 400 North Atlantic right whales in the population with fewer than 100 breeding females left. 

Currently, whale tracking is mostly done through aerial surveys via planes and helicopters, which can be expensive and dangerous due to bad weather conditions.

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