Even at a sturdy 70 tonnes the North Atlantic right whale is no match for the huge ships that cross its path carrying cargo, passengers and the threat of lethal collisions.
Now, a new app for the iPad and iPhone aims to help mariners avoid striking the rare whales.
The Whale Alert app takes information from underwater microphones to locate the whales in real time, which helps ships in New England waters avoid the species’ estimated 550 remaining whales.
The app also uses the GPS feature on iPads and iPhones to alert mariners if they are entering areas where right whales have been spotted, or are known to frequent, along their migratory route from Florida to Maine. Those zones have mandatory or voluntary speed restrictions.
Preventing even one fatal ship strike can have a lasting effect on the right whale population.
“Right whales are being run over by large ships and killed, but we can save them,” said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which led the app’s development.
The North Atlantic right whale was hunted to near extinction in the late 18th century and has struggled ever since.
The animal, which can grow to more than 16m in length, is vulnerable to ship strikes because it can be difficult to see as it feeds on plankton slicks near the surface.
Since the 1970s, an average of two North Atlantic right whales have been killed annually by ship strikes, though there has been one death in each of the past two years, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Greg Silber said.
Whale Alert aims to make it easier for navigators to be aware of the various whale restrictions.
Previously, ships often received that information via clunky technologies such as fax machines, VHF transmission, or not at all because their equipment was outdated.
However, vessels with the app are alerted when they enter areas with right whale restrictions — with a whale song sound effect.
For now, the app can only locate the whales’ real-time location off New England because it is the only region where special acoustic buoys are installed.
“The whales now have a voice,” said Christopher Clark, a Cornell University scientist who led development of the acoustic monitoring system and worked on the app. “We are eavesdropping on the social network of whales.”
The multimillion-dollar acoustic system has been in operation for several years, but before the app, when Cornell researchers confirmed a right whale had been detected, they had to inform any liquefied natural gas tankers in the area by telephone, Clark said.
Now, vessels from container ships to pleasure boats can be informed quickly through the app.
The app is free, but the cost for vessels is between US$600 and US$700 for the iPad and the equipment needed to receive the wireless signal.
Some cruise lines and other vessels have committed to the app, but its effectiveness depends on increased use.
“This is no good, unless the maritime community knows it exists,” said Dave Wiley of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, who also worked on the app.
Kathy Metcalf of the Chamber of Shipping of America, a shipping industry group that was not involved in the project, called the app fantastic, and said she “can’t imagine a reason” why any mariner or boat owner would not want it.
The cost is “beans,” Metcalf said, and the benefits are substantial. By locating where whales are and detailing any restrictions in effect to protect the animals, the app enhances a mariner’s general awareness of the situation at sea.