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Tracking whales from space will help us save them

Satellite technology holds one of the keys to 21st century whale conservation, so we're exploring an incredible new project idea that will revolutionise saving whales.

The fate of whales may well lie, not in the ocean, not in vast halls where policymakers debate laws to protect them, but in the night sky. Beyond the atmosphere.  In the airless void.

In space.

Okay, perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, and – to be clear – I am not talking about actual whales in space.   But it’s only a slight exaggeration.

Let me illustrate with a hopefully self-evident statement:  Whale protection is not happening in big enough ways, and not nearly quickly enough. One major reason for that is lack of data.

How many whales are there? Where are they? Are their numbers going up or down, at what rate and why? If we can’t answer these simple questions, much more fully than we can now, what hope is there that whales will get the protection they need?

Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Sea of Cortes Mexico.

Your donation will help fund trailblazing projects and save whales.

Thankfully, there is a new weapon in our conservation arsenal, and we are just beginning to understand how powerful that weapon might be.   It’s satellites.

When a colleague asked me to get involved with a company called BioConsult SH, and its product SPACEWHALE, and said they might help us answer these big questions, I was intrigued but, yes, a little cynical.   Now, bear in mind that a great deal, possibly most, of what we know about whale numbers and movements has come from taking photographs from boats, over many decades. It’s tried and tested. ‘You can’t take pictures of whales from space,’ I said.  ‘The resolution isn’t good enough. What about cloud cover and flotsam, and anyway, you can’t cover big enough areas.’

But if I’ve learnt anything these past few months it’s ‘Don’t underestimate what tech can do.’ And with support from Deloitte, and its ‘Gravity Challenge,’ we got the chance to find out.

SPACEWHALE is mind boggling. Yes, they can take photos of whales from space.  And they can recognise species, numbers and movement. And they can cover vast areas.  Quickly. Thousands of square kilometres.  Now that’s a lot of pictures; a lot of 30cm resolution pixels to examine and then say: ’See that thing. Is it a whale or not?’ But they have that covered too. SPACEWHALE uses AI, and it’s been ground tested and validated, but with the key difference that it can give us vital whale information in weeks, rather than decades.

satelite Space X

How might this transform whale conservation? Why does this matter?

Because we need to know where whales are present, and we need to feed this into work we are doing, such as mapping the areas that are important to whales for feeding, breeding, or hanging out with friends; the paths they travel on their long, annual migrations, to then ensuring that we safeguard these areas by creating marine protected areas (MPAs) that will keep whales safe. This technology can even help us see if whale numbers increase showing that those MPAs are effective once they have been established.

And it’s not just SPACEWHALE.  WDC is looking to work with organisations that track boats from satellites with AIS (Automatic Identification System), that can tell what species are around from DNA in the water that can give mariners the tools to avoid whales … and more.

Traditional methods of research are just as important as they ever were. In fact, more so. But there is little doubt that this is not enough; that the future of whales and the effectiveness of scientists and conservationists is going to be boosted by satellites, DNA testing, AI and more. Because information is power. Better data will accelerate protection for whales on the high seas.

SPACEWHALE will help us do that.

Will you help us today with a donation?

Your gift, large or small, will help us fund brilliant projects and revolutionise whale and dolphin conservation.