Around the Pier: Two Research Advancements Seek to Make Ship-Whale Interactions Safer


Ships and whales are both giants of the world oceans but when they collide, the whales’ size frequently affords them little protection.

This summer, for instance, saw the deaths of a dozen endangered right whales in Canadian waters.  As reported in Hakai magazine, necropsies on seven of them revealed that six had been killed in collisions with ships.

Now progress on two fronts among whale researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego could make gains toward reducing these collisions.

Ana Širović, research oceanographer at Scripps Oceanography, has been selected to participate in a $1.5 million initiative to find a solution to reduce ship-whale collisions.

The Benioff Ocean Initiative (BOI) has committed to providing $10 million for scientists to solve a new crowd-sourced ocean problem every year. The project is led by the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and funded by a donation from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

“We are delighted to partner with this all-star team of whale biologists and marine technologists to build a high IQ system to reduce the risks faced by these endangered whales,” said Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and an assistant professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology at UCSB.

Reducing collisions between ships and whales is the inaugural challenge of the BOI, selected from a pool of crowdsourced submissions. The BOI will provide $1.5 million which will be split among different scientific teams that will spend a year developing ideas to solve the problem.

Scientists believe ship strikes could be a significant obstacle hindering baleen whale population recovery.

Off the coast of California, blue whales are particularly at risk, as the waters off the West Coast of the U.S. are an important feeding ground for the species. In the Santa Barbara Channel alone, it is estimated that at least 10 blue whales are killed by ship strikes every year.

“I think this is an incredibly important problem to address,” McCauley said. “These collisions are impacting some of the most endangered and spectacular whales on the planet.”

“The population levels of the blue whales off the West Coast have been pretty constant over the last 20 years or so,” said Širović, despite hopes that the population would begin to grow now that it is more protected than in the past, “so one of the questions a lot of us have is whether this is due to mortalities from shipping. That is one of the primary reasons suggested for why they are not recovering faster.”

Each team will research a different scientific solution to the problem. Scripps’ Širović will work with Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts to develop an acoustic system that could be deployed on buoys or oil rigs to detect whales and send warnings to nearby ships.

Baumgartner has already developed a similar system that is currently being used in the Atlantic. Širović will work with him on adapting this method in the Santa Barbara Channel. She is providing him with local data to adjust his automatic signal detectors so they will work on whale calls heard in the waters off the West Coast.

“My research interests always veer towards applied problems and finding solutions,” Širović said. “This project provides a great opportunity to use passive acoustics to try to come up with a solution for the problem of ship-whale interactions.”

Širović recently met with the other teams selected to work on the challenge in Santa Barbara at an Oceans Solution Summit. The other participants include a modeler who is looking at the historic distribution of whales, and a scientist from WHOI working to develop thermal imaging goggles to look for whales. Širović’s fieldwork is already underway. She is taking background ambient noise measurements in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“The Santa Barbara Channel is a very interesting region acoustically, with lots of anthropogenic noise and a high density of animals,” Širović said. “Given the prevalence of acoustic signals in the region, and constant improvements in onboard acoustic processing abilities, it seems like a great fit and perfect time to harness these advances.”

In a related study, Scripps oceanographer John Hildebrand recently reported that monitoring of the ship noise that sometimes disrupts whale activities can be done more efficiently than currently prescribed by international measurement standards.  

In a paper published in September of this year in the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America, Hildebrand, study lead author Martin Gassmann, and Sean Wiggins, both also of Scripps, demonstrated that a single hydrophone placed along the path of a ship does almost as well at measuring the noise as a complex array of hydrophones, which is the current international standard.

“This means that it will be possible to more easily characterize the noise of ships as they come and go from California ports,” Hildebrand said. “The first step to managing ship noise is to be able to measure how much noise is emitted by each vessel and then identify how they might be quieted.”

Hildebrand’s measurements were also made in the Santa Barbara Channel, on container ships leaving the Port of Long Beach.

– Mallory Pickett

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