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New tracking system could help ships avoid hitting whales

Southern resident orcas. (AP)

We are under all sorts of environmental restrictions to try and protect marine mammals, so it’s a shame when a giant ship runs over and kills a whale. If only the ship knew the whale was there using some sort of whale traffic control system. It turns out such a thing has been developed.

Doug McCauley is an associate professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss the new technology.

“What we’re doing is we’re putting in a kind of underwater listening station, a hydrophone that’s listening for the whales. Whales make all manner of noise, and you can actually set up these hydrophones with onboard computers to filter through all the noise that’s out there and detect an endangered whale: a killer whale, humpback whale, a fin whale, or blue whale,” he said.

“Then you can send that information — once you detect them on this system — directly to the ships, because no ship wants to come into port with a big fin whale, for example, wrapped around its bow. You can actually help them know when there are whales in the area and reduce these collisions — sort of roadkill at sea — between ships and whales.”

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McCauley says that an estimated 80 endangered whales are killed each year off the coast of Western North America, and that in California — where the technology is being tested — 2018 saw the highest number of ships striking whales, with 2019 on track for high numbers as well.

It’s difficult for whales to avoid ships for the same reasons that it’s often difficult for animals like deer to avoid cars.

“Unfortunately there are a few things working against whales actually becoming a little bit smarter about themselves getting out of the way. It’s a little bit like roadkill. It’s hard for a deer or a bear or a raccoon to learn that something as foreign as a car is a risk,” he said. “It’s hard for a whale to learn that something is foreign, and new to it — all things considered in a very old ocean — that a ship is a risk.”

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“We have to remember to that, of course, these whales are diving down deep to feed, and when they come up to breathe … they’re putting themselves at risk when the ship’s coming by,” he added.

The underwater noise from ships also contributes to this danger by disorienting the whales.

“The noise pollution actually makes it hard for whales to find one another and feed. And the quietest part of a ship is, in fact, often the bow of the ship, the front of the ship, and so sometimes you have a ship the size of a skyscraper bearing down on a whale, but they can’t even hear it, which is a real challenge for them getting out of the way.”

Whale tracking system works like a weather forecast

At the moment, the whale tracking system doesn’t tell ships that a whale is directly in its path and to hit the brakes; instead, it lets ships know about heavy whale activity in the area.

“What it does is give you a bit of a weather forecast for whales. So as you’re coming into these areas that are known problem areas between overlap of feeding whales or high density population of whales and high density of ships, we can let the mariners and the ship captains know that today is a day of high risk for whales,” he said.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of blue whales, lot of fin whales this past week, so proceed with caution. And the intervention that we’re seeking and that seems to be most effective is that the ships just slow down.”

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