Nature and Biodiversity

Whale road: how to keep marine mammals safe from speeding ships - House on Fire podcast

Collisions with container vessels are causing tragedy on the high seas. This podcast explores the solutions. Image: Cameron Venti/Unsplash

James Bray
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Restoring ocean life

  • Episode five of House on Fire asks how we can stop ships colliding with whales.
  • Whales are dying in their thousands due to strikes by container vessels.
  • Other episodes in this series focus on blue finance, direct air capture, alternative meats, shipping decarbonization, and more.
  • You can find more World Economic Forum podcasts here.
  • Episode five of House on Fire asks how we can stop ship strikes on whales.


The fifth episode of House on Fire looks at the problem of ocean roadkill. With thousands of whales dying in collisions with container ships, we talk to the scientists building a high-tech solution in California.

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Whales are more than a majestic marine creature and oceanic spectacle. The International Monetary Fund reckons a single great whale is ‘worth’ $2 million, which comes to more than $1 trillion for the current global stock of great whales. Their value is partly related to the whale-watching economy, but also to their lynchpin role in the ocean’s nutrient cycle, as well as their carbon sequestration capacity; each whale removes around 30 tonnes of carbon in its lifetime, which it takes to the bottom of the ocean with it when it dies.

Global shipping is set to continue growing into the 21st century, so the safety risk to whales is intensifying. We talk to Douglas McCauley, Director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative, who says that learning to manage our ever-expanding footprint on the ocean without stepping on its precious ecosystems is the great ocean-science challenge of our time.

We talk to Ana Sirovic, an oceanographer and bio-acoustician from Texas A&M University at Galveston, who is an expert in whale sounds, as well as Briana Abrahms from the University of Washington Department of Biology, expert in species distribution modelling. Both have helped to design the ‘Whale Safe’ system recently deployed in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Whale Safe incorporates three technologies: an AI-powered underwater sound recording system that detects whale calls, a mobile app used by community scientists to record whale sightings, and big data models that provide near real-time forecasts of whale feeding grounds based on data like ocean temperature and circulation. Data delivered by the new technology will let ships know when whales are nearby, so they can slow down to protect whales while safely transporting goods around the world.

Finally we talk to Sean Hastings, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary CA, about the voluntary speed-restriction programme he has pursued in the Californian shipping lanes where whales feed. We also talk to Cary Asuncion, General Manager Ops and Labour at Cosco Shipping, one of the programme’s top participants, about the steps taken by shipping companies to reduce vessel speeds.

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Listen to our sister podcasts World Vs Virus, about the global pandemic, and The Great Reset, on the efforts to "build back better" here.

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