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Watching out for whales: New technology helps prevent deadly collisions with ships

New technology tries to protect whales
New technology helps avoid whale-ship collisions 05:13

As federal officials investigate an alarming spike in whale deaths, many believed to be caused by ship strikes, scientists are hoping new programs on both coasts will keep more whales alive.

On the West Coast, the new system is called Whale Safe. It uses data from its specialized high-tech buoys, satellites and entries on a whale-watching app to predict the presence of whales in shipping lanes — warning the companies in near-real time so they can voluntarily slow down to 10 knots, a speed set by a federal agency shown to significantly reduce the risk of fatal collisions.

CBS News went off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, to learn more about the program for the "CBS Mornings" series "Protecting the Planet," which explores environmental challenges and solutions in a changing climate.

The Santa Barbara Channel is a prime feeding ground for these massive and often endangered sea creatures. It's also a major thoroughfare for the only thing bigger than they are: shipping vessels and cruise ships.

Blue whale in the Santa Barbara Channel
A blue whale is seen in the Santa Barbara Channel in this file photo from Sept. 7, 2007. Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Federal officials say at least 18 whales have washed up on East Coast beaches since Dec. 1. Experts believe whales have been drawn closer to shore this winter by their food sources into waters crowded with large ships.

Callie Leiphardt, a scientist with Whale Safe, which is funded by billionaire Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff, said even a blue whale — the largest animal to ever live — is "no match for a 1,000-foot cargo ship."

Recent years have seen record West Coast whale deaths, with the notable exception of 2020, when the pandemic all but stopped international shipping. Scientists say most ship strike deaths go undetected because the whales sink to the bottom of the ocean.

There was outrage last year when a beloved 49-foot whale washed up on shore south of San Francisco. Spotted hundreds of times during her life, scientists even gave her a name: Fran. She was found with extensive bruising and a broken neck — injuries consistent with a ship strike. 

"Having just such a well-known, loved whale die from something that we know is preventable is tragic," Leiphardt said.

Whale Safe is now naming and shaming shipping companies and cruise ships that don't slow down, assigning them letter grades. Celebrity Cruises was given a D, a cooperation rate of about 38%. Two of the largest West Coast shippers, Great White Fleet and Matson, got Fs, slowing down less than 18% of the time, according to Whale Safe.

CBS News asked those companies for comment, but only Matson responded. It said in a statement that it is "working to meet the recommended speeds."

Jacqueline Moore, vice president of a trade group representing the West Coast shipping industry, said most carriers do slow down, but the shipping industry relies on them to deliver goods on time. 

"No vessel, no waterway user ever wants to strike a whale. It's a tragic, tragic accident," she said.

Moore said there are three main reasons why a ship wouldn't slow down: efficiency, safety and schedule. 

"And schedule is really paramount here," she said.

On the East Coast, speed limits are mandatory to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Data shows ships there comply 80% of the time. On the West Coast, where slowing down is voluntary, compliance is just 60%. Whale Safe is hoping to change that.

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