Summit Held at UCSB to Prevent Ships Colliding with Whales

Illustration by Esther York | Staff Illustrator

Hannah Maerowitz

A ship crew coasts into port, suddenly realizing that they’ve brought something else on shore aside from their intended cargo: remnants of a blue whale. Even for the largest animal on the planet, being hit by a large ship still feels like a person being hit by a loaded semi truck.

The Benioff Ocean Initiative held a summit on Oct. 17 and 18 at UCSB to discuss implementation of a whale detection project. Founded by tech entrepreneur Marc Benioff, the Benioff Ocean Initiative is striving to address the issue of ships colliding with whales in its first crowd-sourced research project. The BOI’s mission is to create change by providing research funding for important ocean issues. $1.5 million of that funding has been allotted to its latest project of avoiding ship strikes.

Although ship and whale collisions may seem unimportant, they are far from uncommon. On the west coast especially, the rates of blue whale deaths from ship collisions are approximately eight times higher than the limit recommended by the U.S. government, according to a study published in scientific journal PLOS ONE in August.

Estimating the exact amount of collisions between whales and ships is difficult because many of them go unreported. However, the consequences of these collisions for the whales are extreme. The study estimates that 68% of ship strikes are fatal for the whale, which makes the issue of ship strikes extremely consequential. Whales are important predators, nutrient movers, and ecosystem engineers, resulting in cascading consequences for their ecosystems if there are too many fatalities.

“What’s unique about the BOI whale/ship collision project is that it puts some of the most brilliant marine scientists in the world to work on an enormously important issue,” said Douglas McCauley, a member of the BOI’s team of scientists, in an interview with The Bottom Line.

“The summit was very productive,” said McCauley. “We’re putting our heads together to build an integrated and automated whale detection array.”

The array includes surveillance, a hydrophone, and a thermal sensing system. It also harnesses a big data model that uses factors such as temperature and food supply to predict the location of whales.

This approach to whale detection takes some inspiration from systems in the Atlantic that use whale sounds to discern location, but the proposed array technology will be unprecedented in its sophistication. It will also be the first automated whale sensing system in the Pacific.

Researchers are optimistic about the impact of the research. “I don’t see why we can’t find a solution to this issue if we dedicate ourselves to it and get creative,” said McCauley. “We have so many incredible minds working on this.”

Furthermore, researchers believe that the array doesn’t have to conflict with the priorities of ships and commerce. “We’re working on making the array accurate so that it won’t impede ship paths too much, McCauley said. “There’s this mentality that time is money, so sometimes ships don’t want to slow down.”

Though McCauley understands economic concerns, he encouraged people to think of the array as similar to a warning light in a school zone. The array will be designed to protect whales and affect ship paths only when there’s a high chance of collision.

The BOI team is on track to begin testing the array in late spring or early summer of 2018 in the Santa Barbara Channel, which overlaps with the blue whale migration period to their west coast feeding grounds. The distribution of krill and other prey in the Santa Barbara Channel is extremely high, making the channel a hotspot for whales and an excellent place to test the array.

McCauley was optimistic about the potential impact of the research, saying that “if testing is successful in Santa Barbara, it’s possible that the array will be extrapolated to many other areas.”