A Closer Look At Using Satellites For Whale Studies

Scientists have found a new way to put satellite technology to good use. Researchers in the UK are now using satellites to assist in counting whales. The high-resolution images gathered by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) help the scientists not only count the numbers of whales in pods, but the images are so sharp that they can easily distinguish different species. That’s a pretty impressive feat considering the photos are taken from 385 miles away!

The team with BAS will soon be using the same technology on a project involving fin whales in parts of the Mediterranean. This new project will utilize never-before-seen techniques involving automated computer programs that will do the legwork involved with scanning the satellite data.

The new research will help get a better idea of the whales’ movements in a protected area known as the Ligurian Sea. While the waters are considered a protected area for whales, it’s also a busy area for shipping, and the authorities in the regions believe that the research could help avoid future collisions between the animals and cargo ships.

Other attempts have been made in the past to use satellites to track whale movements, but the results weren’t nearly as successful as those generates by BAS. The success is due largely to DigitalGlobe, a company out of America, and its WorldView-3 spacecraft. This incredible piece of equipment can easily define features of an object on the Earth’s surface that’s only a foot wide. The only satellites in orbit capable of seeing more detail are military assets and extremely restricted for use.

That high level of sophistication has allowed scientists with BAS to capture images of different whale species all over the world, including Hawaii, Argentina, and Mexico. They’ve been able to capture images of whales below the surface and sometimes even breaching. The whales’ flukes and other body shapes are so clearly defined that satellite verification of specific species is now possible.

The real benefit is that whale counting is no longer limited to such localized areas. Now scientists are able to cover the full range of a pod of whales, which often covers hundreds of thousands of square miles.

The detail of the images, combined with the current automation tests, could potentially change the game of animal observation all over the globe. It’s certainly an interesting tool that experts will be keeping an eye on over the next several years.