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Scientists Learn to Count Whales from Space

Scientists Learn to Count Whales from Space

In a world first, scientists have managed to harness satellite technology in order to remotely count the number of breeding whales in an otherwise difficult to navigate area.

Estimating whale numbers from land or the air has always been problematic, and even potentially dangerous. To tackle this problem, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have come up with a new method for counting whales by employing Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery and image processing software to automatically detect the whales as soon as they come near to or actually surface. The research is published this month in the journal Plos One.

“This is a proof of a concept study that proves whales can be identified and counted by satellite,” lead author Peter Fretwell from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is quoted as saying.

The researchers were able to count breeding whales in sections of the Golfo Nuevo, Peninsula Valdes in Argentina, which is well known as a hotspot for calving southern right whales. To count the whales, they used the DigitalGlobe’s WorldView2 satellite, one of the most powerful satellites of its kind in use today. Even so, the whales only showed up on the satellite images as small pixels. Nevertheless, the satellite image counts were able to yield an 89% accuracy rate when compared to manual counts.

Trialing the automated method was in fact a great deal more complicated than this, with more in depth details available here, and the method is very difficult to get right. For instance, bad weather can disturb the imaging to the point where it renders the method unusable. There are also problems with wrongly identifying whales, but these could be remedied in future as the technology becomes more refined.

All that said, the applications of this method are perhaps just as interesting as the method itself. Southern right whales have been hunted to virtual extinction, partly because of their problems breeding but mostly because they made ideal hunting victims due to the fact that they tend to swim slowly and stay close to relatively shallow waters.

Thanks to conservation efforts, the whales’ numbers have slowly crept up but in recent years the number of dead calves found around the Peninsula Valdes has grown. The precise reasons for this aren’t clear. However, with this technology marine biologists believe they could finally begin to accurately track whale activity without having to risk life and limb. Prof Vicky Rowntree from the University of Utah is quoted by the BBC as saying:

“It’s going to be absolutely amazing. The other dimension of it is that many marine mammal researchers have been killed flying in small planes while surveying whales. So my great desire is to get us out of small planes circling over whales and to be able to do it remotely. Satellite data is wonderful.”

The proof of concept study shows that this technology should be cost effective and, as noted above, would improve research safety, so potentially this kind of tracking could be rolled out to wider whale populations. Before that can happen, though, the process will have to be refined yet the researchers appear optimistic that this is a technique that will only get better as the technology it relies upon improves.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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70 comments

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1:12AM PST on Feb 23, 2014

Fascinating...

8:42PM PST on Feb 21, 2014

They have already started using satellite to catch illegal net fishing so I am surprised it took this long to figure out they can count whales. This could be exciting to see if it is more accurate.

4:01PM PST on Feb 20, 2014

ty

1:30PM PST on Feb 20, 2014

Awesome! I hope it ONLY helps scientists

4:00AM PST on Feb 19, 2014

That's a pretty cool way to use technology. Not only will it be safer for the people I'm sure it's much less intrusive for the whales, after all we have to respect their space as much as we respect our own space.

10:35PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

A very progressive move

4:49PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

Wonderful idea! (Why am I reminded of the Star Trek movie "Star Trek V"?)

4:16PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

Yay for technology, and yay for the correct use of it! I just love this stuff!

4:14PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

I'm with the Ruth S & Ruth G on this one - whilst the technology won't stop certain countries killing whales it will show that whale numbers are not as high as these countries keep saying they are. Pity the satellite can't shoot the whaling vessels out of the water then we wouldn't need to worry about whale numbers. I'd be ecstatic if all whaling vessels found illegally in our waters were blown up, never to be seen again.

2:55PM PST on Feb 18, 2014

Watching them from space is not going to stop these bastards from killing them!

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