The leading cause of death for large whales is ship collision. UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory is working to reduce the number of these collisions by tracking them across the California coast via artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
This past September, UCSB’s WhaleSafe program launched their second research vessel into the San Francisco Bay, while the first vessel sits near the port of Long Beach.
They are tracking whales that migrate along the central coast, including blue whales, humpback whales and fin whales.
Rachel Rhodes is a Project Scientist for the Benioff Lab who works on WhaleSafe. She said whale-ship collisions on the California coastline happen more often than many might think.
“There’s estimates that about 80 endangered whales are killed off the West Coast every year. So again, it’s just kind of a nuanced number from the actual reported ship strikes because it’s just a fraction of what we’re seeing,” Rhodes said.
According to Rhodes, the risk of a ship-strike is high near ports in Long Beach and Oakland. Their solution is an AI-powered, real-time whale detection system that allows mariners to know if there are nearby whales in busy shipping areas.
“We’ve got three different types of technology feeding into that to provide this whale presence rating of what’s happening out on the water at any given moment,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said there are three parts to the design of their whale tracking system. The first and most important part is an underwater microphone that monitors ocean noise 24/7. And, with their AI technology, they’re able to identify each whale through the noises they make.
The second piece of information they use is satellite data of ocean conditions to predict whether whales are likely to be around.
“That was a model built off of 104 satellite tags of blue whales to understand their habitat preference, but it’s dynamically updated every day based on the OSHA graphic conditions, and will let us know the forecast for the region,” Rhodes said.
And the final piece is data collected from whale watching.
“All three of those are coming together into our system and we synthesize it into a more simple version which is a ‘whale presence rating.’ Akin to [the] Smokey the Bear fire danger sign. I think that’s the best analogy because it’s a rating that’s going from low, medium, high to very high,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said they get hourly updates from the different data streams, which they send out to ship captains and resource managers.
With 2018 and 2019 seeing the highest rates of whale collisions, UCSB’s Benioff Lab is asking mariners to use their platform to slow down for nearby whales, to avoid collisions.
Updates on nearby whales can be found on WhaleSafe’s public website.