Whale-watching scientists put satellite technology to good use

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Whale-watching scientists put satellite technology to good use

November 03, 2018 - 09:53
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Detailed images of whales captured by satellites have been used to identify four whale species in different parts of the world in a study.

Satellite image of fin whale, by DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company

A team of scientists used high-resolution satellite images provided by Maxar Techologies’ DigitalGlobal to detect, count and describe four whale species.

They observed the four species in one of their known aggregation locations: southern right whales off Argentina, humpback whales off Hawaii, fin whales in the Pelagos Sanctuary in the Mediterranean, and grey whales off the coast of Mexico.

The study has helped whale conservation bodies identify 10 key inaccessible whale populations that would benefit most from the application of satellite imagery in studies.

The findings of the study was published in the Marine Mammal Science journal.

Lead author Hannah Cubaynes described it was the “most detailed imagery of whales captured by satellites to date", adding that “It's exciting that the improved resolution (now at 30cm) reveals characteristic features, such as flippers and flukes, which can be seen in the images for the first time.” Cubaynes is a whale ecologist at British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and University of Cambridge.

The study also found that some species were easier to identify than others. If the whale’s body colouration contrasts with the surrounding waters, they were easy to identify; this was true of fin and grey whales. However, humpback whales and southern right whales were harder to detect as they were of a similar colour as their environment. Humpback whales were more challenging to identify as they tend to splash about a lot, and this causes their body shape to be obscured.

Another author of the paper, BAS whale ecologist Jennifer Jackson said, "This new technology could be a game-changer in helping us to find whales remotely. Critically endangered whale populations like the Chile-Peru right whale (thought to winter in Patagonia) could really benefit from this approach."

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