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'Whale Safe' mapping system unveiled to help prevent whale-ship collisions

Whale carcass washes ashore at Manhattan Beach in Half Moon Bay
Whale carcass washes ashore at Manhattan Beach in Half Moon Bay 01:12

SAUSALITO -- The death of beloved endangered humpback whale "Fran" last month in Half Moon Bay after being struck by a ship was a sad reckoning for not only her fans but for marine scientists who have seen a startling uptick in whale deaths over the last decade.

Now Bay Area scientists have announced a collaboration with Whale Safe, a technology-based mapping and analysis system to help prevent whale-ship collisions in an effort to protect these enormous denizens of the deep.

The collaboration was announced Wednesday and is being spearheaded by the Marine Mammal Center, headquartered in Marin County, and the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California Santa Barbara.

"Whale Safe is on a mission to help save the incredible mammals who have ruled the oceans for tens of millions of years," Marc Benioff, chair and co-CEO of Salesforce, said in a statement. "Whale-ship collisions continue to be the leading cause of death for endangered whales."

Carcass of "Fran," a humpback whale that washed ashore at Manhattan Beach in Half Moon Bay, August 29, 2022. David Pogue

Benioff said that fatalities decline after implementing technology and alert systems that allow shipping companies and vessel captains to go online to detect whale presence in the coastal waters of Northern California.

Whale Safe uses an artificial intelligence acoustic monitoring system, big data models and direct whale sightings recorded by trained observers. The data is synthesized into a "whale presence rating," which ranges from low to very high whale activity. This tells ship captains when to slow down, which scientists say is the most effective measure to "drastically" reduce the number of deadly ship strikes.

According to the Marine Mammal Center, more than 50 percent of all container ships coming to and from the U.S. pass through West Coast ports. Gray, humpback, blue, and fin whales migrate and feed in areas that overlap shipping routes. Scientists estimate that over 80 endangered whales die by being struck by ships each year.

Only between 5 and 17 percent of dead whale carcasses are discovered, a fraction of the total number that die each year, according to the Marine Mammal Center.

"Whales are animals of such great beauty, ecological importance and antiquity," said Dr. Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory. "They do not deserve to be roadkill at sea. This is an avoidable problem."  

Additional information on the project can be found on the Marine Mammal Center website.

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