Internet of Things Saves Whales

The Internet of Things (IoT) is already on the high seas, commercial ships are being equipped with sensors to prevent collisions. Now smart, connected products are helping to keep ships from harming whales.

Each year, thousands of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals fall victim to fatal collisions with marine vessels; countless other casualties go undocumented. Whales are vulnerable to accidents with even smaller fishing boats.

Governments are well aware of the problems posed to whales by maritime activity, which also include disorienting noise pollution and environmental damage caused by off-shore oil-drilling.

In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has established guidelines regarding speed zones and minimum safe distance for protected species, including marine mammals. Setting regulations is easy; compliance can be much more difficult. For large boats, such shipping vessels and cruise ships, it is challenging even to detect the presence of whales.

Several years ago, conservation, government, and industry groups partnered to form the Whale Alert network. One function of this partnership is to develop mobile device apps and sensors. These apps promote NOAA compliance in maritime industries, and build public awareness and advocacy for whale protection.

The first iteration of the Whale Alert app was designed for the shipping industry (specifically for pilots and navigators); the app combined data from three decades of whale-zones research, shipping traffic lanes, and charts. Notification alerts are actively pushed, assisting pilots in avoiding protected zones and observing minimum safe distances.

The recently released Whale Alert 2.0 app has introduced some key new functionality, opening the door for public involvement. Built with crowdsourcing capabilities, any Whale Alert user sighting a whale can mark their GPS location. Data is then delivered, in real-time, updating Whale Alert’s marine maps. Because ship pilots and owners can face regulatory fines, the app isn’t just useful for preventing whale fatalities. Using Whale Alert’s suggested alternate routes, ships can more easily comply with NOAA and state regulations, avoiding costly accidents and penalties.

The evolution of the Whale Alert app is helping to boost public awareness and advocacy. In addition to being able to locate whales, the app provides a whale ID guide. Buoy-mounted acoustic sensors capture the unique vocalizations made by Right whales – essentially allowing them to “check in” on a true internet of things/social media mash-up.

Along with a more robust application and data center behind Whale Alert 2.0, the program has expanded to track and identify whale activity on both coasts, and includes more species of whales. While ship-strikes have decreased in recent years, Right whales face a particularly dire situation; with an estimated global population of 450, these are highly endangered creatures.

Photo: North Atlantic Right Whale by Elliott Hazen from NOAA Photo Library, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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