A Voice for Whales: Using Satellite Data to Protect Marine Mammals

[MUSIC] We are awed by the grandeur and mystery of
whales as they move through the ocean. Off the west coast of the U.S., the thrill of
spotting a whale is becoming more common. Many species are recovering from near extinction.
Some populations have yet to rebound and are still endangered. That’s the case with blue
whales, the largest animals on Earth. Now scientists are using NASA earth observations
to overcome a major obstacle to protecting these whales: predicting where they’ll be.
NOAA’s Monica DeAngelis helps manage the protection of whales under the Marine Mammal
Protection and Endangered Species Acts. The biggest threat to whale populations now
is still humans. We’ve got vessel collisions, climate change, habitat loss or destruction,
entanglement in any kind of gear – marine debris or fishing gear – anything that’s
out in the ocean. My members, the ocean carriers that transit
these waters, take this issue very seriously. Nobody wants to hit a whale. It’s just one
of those things no mariner wants to be a part of. One of the questions we’re constantly asked from a management perspective is where are
the whales. The whale swims underwater most of the time
and the ships don’t have a sensor that they can see it. When the whale does come up to
surface and breathe, that’s for a very short period of time, and on these huge ships it’s
hard for the watch officers to actually see the whale during that short period of
time that it’s breathing. We felt that it was our responsibility as
the experts on whales to tell them where the whales are. Scientist Helen Bailey and her team partnered
with NOAA’s DeAngelis to tackle this challenge through a project called WhaleWatch. There are a number of products that are going
to come out of this but one of the most innovative is a near real-time tool that will use the
latest satellite environmental data to predict the occurrence of whales off the U.S. west
coast. The species of whale that WhaleWatch will
cover are blue, fin, humpback, and gray whales. The whales were tracked using Argos satellite
telemetry, so a tag is put on the whale, and then a signal transmits up to a satellite
whenever the whale is at the surface which enables you to calculate the positions. We
have tracking data from 1993 to 2009. We are combining the satellite telemetry
data for the whales with satellite-derived environmental data to understand not just
where the whale’s going, but why are they going there. We call this the habitat model,
understanding what is their required habitat, and then we can predict where the whales are
going to go based on the environment. The environmental information comes from a number
of satellites, for example sea surface temperature and chlorophyll concentration we’re getting
from MODIS on Aqua and the Jason series of satellites for sea surface height.
When we correlated the environmental data and the whale data, we found that the most
important variables were sea surface temperature, which helped to explain their seasonal migration,
the chlorophyll concentration, which is related to the abundance of food, and then also the
ocean winds that explained the upwelling which triggered that availability of food for the
whales. The final one that was important was the slope of the seabed. We tend to see krill
aggregate on that slope and that seemed to be where the blue whales were, too. We have
that process automated so that on the website it will automatically download the latest
sea surface temperature, chlorophyll concentration, and winds information, put it into the model,
and then output this prediction map. We come up with a nice map that is much easier for
managers and other marine users to interpret. We will have the WhaleWatch products on a
publicly available NOAA website so it should be relatively easy for them to find and access. We’re going to be getting information that
we didn’t have before, which is this ability to predict in near real-time where we think
animals might be. That at least gives us that important point
on the graph of where the whales are, we can then compare that to where the ships are going,
and see what adjustments can be made. The Navy, the Coast Guard, shipping industry,
fishermen, and researchers, actually, are very interested in seeing this come to fruition
because they want to be able to take a look and use this for their own reasons. In the same way that ships are very conscious
about the weather, they’re very conscious about the whales, and if they know where the
whales are they can avoid them. The bottom line is this is the best available
science. We are now able to use that information to give whales a voice, so that humans can
change their behavior to reduce the threat to whales. [MUSIC]

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