New system to save whales near San Francisco from ship collisions
THE PACIFIC OCEAN NEAR SAN FRANCISCO – Fran washed ashore in August, about 25 miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge. The loved and photographed female humpback whale with broken neck, most likely the result crashed by a ship.
This latest example of an undersea path has increased the number of whales killed by ships near San Francisco this year to four. The real death toll is potentially much higher like a whale carcass that often sink to the bottom of the sea.
Scientists and conservationists are trying to push that number to zero. On Wednesday, Whale is safe, an AI-powered detection system, has begun operating around the San Francisco Bay. Its goal is to warn large ships in the area’s waters when whales are nearby.
About 25 miles offshore on a Monday afternoon from the Golden Gate, a yellow float bobbed not far from the great white shark hunting grounds of the Farallon Islands. On a nearby boat called the Nova, Douglas McCauley, director of Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, donned a wet suit and snorkel and jumped into the salt water to give the float some TLC before its big day. The buoy, tethered to an underwater microphone, is an integral part of the Whale Safe.
The researchers estimate More than 80 endangered blue, humpback and fin whales are killed by ships along the West Coast each year. With global maritime traffic on the rise, the problems caused by thousands of giant ships sailing through seas teeming with ocean giants are expected to only get worse. Close to San Francisco in particular, climate change has moved whale food closer to shore, leaving whales vulnerable more often, according to Kathi George, field operations director for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.
That’s why Dr. McCauley and a network of collaborators developed Whale Safe with funding from Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne. Whale Safe, which has been operating on the Santa Barbara Channel since 2020, provides real-time data on whale presence and sends alerts to cruisers, shipping companies and anyone else who subscribes. . The hope is that if captains receive warnings that there are a lot of whales in the area, they are more likely to divert or slow their approach to port – a tactic research to show that fewer fatal crashes.
“The real-time aspect of Whale Safe alerts and being able to get an idea of where whales are located 24 hours a day is really unique and gives us more information to share with ships out there. into the Gulf,” said Maria Brown, director of the Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones National Marine Protected Areas of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 2021, the full year of Whale Safe’s first operation in the Santa Barbara Canal, no whale-vessel interactions have been recorded in the area, which Dr McCauley called an encouraging sign.
Whale Safe also uses public position data transmitted by vessels to determine if they slow down to 10 knots during voyages through whale feeding grounds, something NOAA has already reported. requires large vessels to do during whale season (usually May through November off the coast of California) since 2014. Whale Safe processes vessel speed information and assigns shipping companies a letter type. .
Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, earned a “B” for slowing down 79% of the time in the Santa Barbara Canal. But the ships operated by Matson, a major player in Pacific shipping, were only 16% behind and received an “F.”.
A Matson spokesman said the company has long instructed its ships to participate in NOAA’s voluntary speed reduction programs “to the greatest extent possible, subject to our operational requirements. A large percentage of our ships have an average speed of less than 12 knots”.
On Monday afternoon at the float, Dr McCauley used a kitchen scrubber and a plastic knife to scrape the algae and check that various utensils were intact. The device’s underwater microphone is placed about 280 feet below the flippers, listening for whales from the seafloor, and attached to the floating partner’s communications array by a sturdy rubberized cable. This high-tech float was developed by Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and his team are using the same technology to listen to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales along the East coast.
Whale Safe uses three data streams: the buoy listens for and identifies blue, fin and humpback songs using an algorithm and transmits its detection to a satellite; a mathematical model powered by current and past oceanographic and biological data that predicts where blue whales are most likely to be; and citizen scientists and trained observers report whale sightings through an app called Whale warning.
Whale Safe’s platform integrates these data sources and alerts vessels to the possibility of them encountering whales that day.
In 2019, prior to the launch of the Santa Barbara system, 46% of trains slowed down in Southern California voluntary deceleration zones, and now that rate has increased to 60% by 2022. But events That increase can also be credited to a financial incentive program called Blue whale Blue sky will pay shipping companies late because of whales, as well as more than a decade of outreach by NOAA officials like Ms. Brown to shipping companies.
In the San Francisco area, NOAA speed limit cooperation rates have hovered around 62% over the past three years, and it is hoped that Whale Safe can help bring them higher.
“We are looking to the industry to step up on this occasion voluntarily,” said Ms. Brown. “If they can’t do that, our board has asked us to consider making these speed limits mandatory like on the East Coast where they are 80% compliant.”
Dr McCauley said the response from the shipping companies has been encouraging, with some of the world’s biggest apparel asking for more information about what kind of good or bad they’re getting and how to get notified. of Whale Safe to their fleet in the most efficient way.
CMA CGM, the world’s third largest container shipping company, created an automated pipeline to disseminate Whale Safe warnings directly to captains near the Santa Barbara Canal.
Whale Safe’s team is also working with Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest shipbuilder, to feed the system’s data directly into the navigation systems of newly built ships, said Callie Steffen, a scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative and project leader for Whale Safe.
Now that the system has been turned on in two locations, Dr McCauley said the immediate goal is to continue reaching out to the companies and try to reduce the rate of whale deaths caused by ship collisions. boat down to 0 where Whale Safe is operating. Ms. Steffen and others aim to expand Whale Safe’s vessel speed monitoring capabilities to all designated areas of whale interest in the United States and Canada on both coasts.
On Monday, fog clouded the horizon as the Nova flew off the buoy. As the fog cleared, the sea ahead of the boat erupted with water cannons and leaping sea lions. The boat cut the engine, and Dr. McCauley pulled out a long-lens camera to try to identify some of the nine humpback researchers discovered.
The air carried the fishy, primitive smell of whale breath as everyone on board marveled at the wildness on display. Then the radio went on: Vessel Traffic Services, the company that manages the movement of ships in and out of the Gulf, said Nova needed to get out of the channel because a large vessel was passing. Scientists have re-broadcast that the large ship needs to be warned that it is entering an area where whales are visible.
While Nova back in San Francisco, Dr. McCauley said that as he was rendering foraging humpback whales for his photographs, he couldn’t help but think of the recently deceased Fran.
“It should have been her,” he said in a slightly catchy voice.