Ship collisions can kill whales – this technology is helping to stop them

A Humpback whale breaching the surface of the ocean.

Ship collisions are a leading cause of death for large whales. Image: Unsplash/Mike Doherty

Victoria Masterson
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Ship collisions are a leading cause of death for large whales.
  • A piece of technology called Whale Safe aims to reduce such collisions in the Santa Barbara Channel off the Californian coast in the US.
  • It identifies the sounds of whales and reports them in near real time.
  • Whales support biodiversity and help tackle climate change by reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Whales aren’t just the largest animals on Earth. They also play a vital role in the food chain and the species diversity in our ocean – and help to tackle climate change by naturally absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

The importance of whales to life on earth underlines the need to protect them, says Whale Safe, the creators of a tool to help protect whales from collisions with ships.

Ship collisions are a leading cause of death for large whales, the organization says.

What is Whale Safe?

Whale Safe is a mapping and analysis tool that shows whale and ship data for the Santa Barbara Channel, part of a curved stretch of coastline between California and Mexico on North America’s West coast.

The Santa Barbara Channel is one of Earth’s richest ecosystems, home to many endangered species, including blue, gray and humpback whales, according to the area’s environmental watchdog.

There are also busy international shipping routes in the channel to and from the Californian ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Map of whale sightings in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Many endangered whale species feed in the Santa Barbara Channel off California’s coast. Image: Whale Safe

How does Whale Safe work?

Whale Safe detects visual and acoustic signs of whales. It also includes a blue whale habitat model that predicts the likely presence of blue whales.

It identifies the sounds of blue, humpback and fin whales and reports them in near real time using its passive acoustic monitoring system.

Whale Safe uses ocean data to make daily predictions on blue whale habitats, while visual signs of whales are gathered by specialist whale sighting volunteers and whale watch vessels.

Whale presence 19th September 2022.
Whale Safe uses data on visual whale sightings, audio whale detection and habitat predictions to help ships avoid whale collisions. Image: Whale Safe

The technology is being developed by the Benioff Ocean Initiative, a healthy ocean initiative at the University of California Santa Barbara. It is working with whale scientists from organizations including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, University of Washington and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center – part of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

How are whales at risk from ship collisions?

More than 80 whales are killed by ship collisions on the West coast of the United States every year, scientists believe.

Whale Safe says 2018, 2019 and 2021 were the worst years on record for collisions between whales and ships in the area.

Ships can significantly reduce the danger they pose to whales by slowing their speed to 10 knots (18.5 kilometres per hour) in areas where there is a high presence of whales, says Whale Safe.

Locations of reported whale deaths caused by vessel interactions.
Scientists in the United States are helping whales avoid fatal ship collisions through a mapping tool called Whale Safe. Image: Whale Safe

How do whales reduce CO2?

This is partly because whales promote the growth on the ocean surface of phytoplankton – microscopic marine organisms that capture 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Phytoplankton capture about 40% of the world’s CO2 and produce about half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, according to conservation organization WWF.

Whales also naturally lock away around 33 tonnes of CO2 in their bodies.

If whale numbers return to the pre-whaling level of around 5 million, up from around 1.3 million now, they could capture roughly 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.


Whales boost biodiversity

Whales are also vital to biodiversity. When whale populations are healthy, so is marine life including fish and seabirds, the IMF adds in its report on protecting whales. Whales also support life on land by recycling nutrients.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2021 ranks biodiversity loss as the world’s fifth most likely global risk and fourth most dangerous by impact, after infectious diseases, climate action failure and weapons of mass destruction.

This threatens the millions of species that work together to provide humanity with food and nutrition. Biodiversity also helps to protect human health, for example through plants that are used in medicines.

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