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Underwater microphone helps protect whales

Words by Smiley Team

Whales are some of the most recognizable animals on the planet – and no other animal alive is larger than the blue whale. They can be found in nearly every corner of the planet’s oceans, but with that, they often run into human boats and freighters. 

According to research by the non-profit Friend of the Sea, ship strikes kill more than 20,000 whales every year. Many whale species are already endangered and this only contributes to that problem.

To combat this, a team of researchers from the University of California, the University of Washington, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration worked together to develop the new detection system.

The detection system, called Whale Safe, uses an underwater microphone to identify different whale calls, and then once identified, that information is sent to a satellite and shared on an app that records whale sightings. 

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Combining this with information from blue whale tagging studies and oceanographic data, a mathematical model also predicts where the blue whales are likely to be swimming.

“To make it very easily digestible for anyone that's looking at this data, we put all those data streams through an algorithm that spits out what we call a 'whale presence rating',” Callie Steffen, a project scientist with the Benioff Ocean Initiative (BOI) at UC Santa Barbara said. “That rating will go anywhere from low to very high.”

Another organization out of Greece is working on a similar project. Called the “System for the Avoidance of Ship-Strikes with Endangered Whales” (SAvEWhales), they claim that they can locate a sperm whale within 40 meters by tracking the whale’s clicks.

Those clicks are tracked by underwater buoys that act as hydrophones which pick up the clicking sound the whales use to locate prey. Based on the strength of volume, and the time it took for one click to reach each of the three hydrophones, the technology was able to estimate how far away the click originated.

“The SAvEWhales observatory proved effective in detecting and localizing sperm whales, particularly in summer 2021 where a large number of animals visited the deployment area, also during the period where a verification campaign was conducted,” the SAvEWhales study reads. 

The device isn’t perfect, as it can’t differentiate individual whales traveling together, nor can it pick up the location of singing whales like the Mediterranean fin whale which is also endangered and at risk of ship strikes. Also, the buoys are susceptible to bad weather. However, it’s a step in the right direction to protect whales. 

Inspired to Act?

DONATE: Ocean Alliance is an organization that puts in work trying to protect whales. Consider donating. 

SUPPORT: Friend of the Sea has a whole kit and project put together about how you can help protect whales and explain their work. Give it a look.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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