Smartphones, which have already revolutionized world communications, are now on track to save the whales.
Marine biologists are testing a new smartphone application this week that can pinpoint the location of whales around the Farallon Islands and help ships steaming in and out of San Francisco Bay avoid hitting them.
The app, called Whale Spotter, could be used by anyone with an iPhone who goes out to sea in a ship or boat. It would map pods or individual cetaceans and plot them on a digital map. An app for the Android is being developed.
“By using the app we will be able to have real time information about the distribution and abundance of whales, which is a main concern for us because they are endangered, and we want to reduce the possibility of strikes,” said Jaime Jahncke, the lead ocean researcher for Point Blue Conservation Science, formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.
“We are trying to engage the community in this effort,” said Jahncke, who will be one of seven scientists on a research boat testing the technology and documenting the distribution around the Farallones of whales, birds and marine mammals. “Whether it is a naturalist, a fisherman, a sailor or a recreational boater – anybody who has a smartphone can participate.”
The free app, designed by programmers at Conserve.IO, is the latest development in the conservation movement as it shifts away from bumper stickers and into social media.
Whale Spotter, which is also known as Spotter Pro, uses GPS to record the locations where whales and other marine animals have been spotted. The information is automatically loaded onto an interactive map that ship captains, U.S. Coast Guard officials, charter fishing boat operators and whale watchers can consult, according to Point Blue officials.
Help ships steer clear
The idea is to get all mariners involved in identifying oceangoing whales so that large ships traveling in and out of the Golden Gate can steer clear of them. The reports, particularly those involving large groups of whales, would be checked by Coast Guard boats and helicopters, and by observations made on Southeast Farallon Island, where Point Blue researchers are stationed year round.
“No ship captain wants to hit a whale,” said John Berge, the spokesman for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “We’re hoping to be a part of the process to gather data and help prevent whale strikes.”
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard could use the information to reroute shipping traffic if necessary.
Gray and humpback whales are now at or near their historic populations, and the number of fin whales has been increasing. About 20,000 humpbacks now inhabit the North Pacific.
Blues whales most at risk
Jahncke said he has observed four times more whales swimming off the West Coast this year than he saw in 2004. But blue whales – the largest creature to ever live – have not increased in numbers, and researchers fear ship strikes may be the reason. There are only 1,800 to 2,000 blue whales in the northeastern Pacific, a small fraction of their historic numbers.
More whales in general are getting hit by ships, but experts say blues appear to be more susceptible than the others, particularly along the California coast, which has the largest population of the giant whales in the world. It is clearly becoming an issue outside the Golden Gate, where 7,300 large vessels pass through every year.
The ship strike issue first became a big deal in 2007 when five dead blue whales washed ashore in Southern California, four of which had major wounds that were found to have been caused by ship strikes.
A 2010 study by some of the top marine mammal experts in California, Oregon and Washington found that eight of the 21 blue whale deaths along the California coast between 1988 and 2007 were a result of ship strikes. The dead whales were all found near shipping lanes entering San Francisco Bay, the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach and in the Santa Barbara channel.
In 2010, four endangered whales were documented to have been struck by ships, including a blue and fin whale. This year, several dead whales have washed up on Bay Area beaches with wounds from confirmed or suspected ship strikes.
Saving the whales and more
The blue whale isn’t the only species that is suffering. Ship strikes are believed to be a primary reason the critically endangered northern right whale has not recovered after being almost killed off by centuries of whaling. Only 20 or 30 right whales still exist on Earth.
The Whale Spotter app was developed as a result of recommendations by a Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones vessel-strike working group, which was formed in an effort to halt the whale stranding trend. The release follows a Coast Guard decision in June to reconfigure the three shipping lanes that lead into San Francisco Bay to skirt whale feeding grounds.
Jahncke and his crew plan to input a lot of data during the weeklong research cruise and compare the information to data on their computer system. If it all checks out, he said, the app will be used in the future to track not just whales, but also birds, marine mammals and other marine wildlife from Mexico to Alaska.
“We want to expand so that people from all areas along the coast participate,” Jahncke said about the app, which is available for Apple devices. An Android version is being developed.