Of ships and whales and iPad apps

Atlantic northern right whale with calf. Image by US government, in public domain

Atlantic northern right whale with calf. Image by US government, in public domain

We all know that whales are under threat from a variety of human actions, but there’s good news on at least one front, in the surprising form of an iPad app.

The port city of Boston in the US hosts a large amount of traffic: around 1,500 vessels every month, mostly large container ships. Sadly, this has a deleterious effect on the North Atlantic right whale, which along with other species of whale, live in the waters off New England.

Whales suffer in two ways: directly, from ship/whale collisions, and indirectly, from the noise. Whales communicate with others by sound, and use sound to locate food and mates, so the massive constant noise generated by the shipping is endangering their survival.

Enter the heroic Dr Dave Wiley, Research Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US.  Wiley and his team worked with the Boston port authority, comparing data on whale travel routes and commercial shipping lanes, in an attempt to work out a new route for ships that would reduce the likelihood of collisions and the effect of noise.

The new shipping route would increase the total travel time by 9 – 22 minutes, but in a journey that can take days or weeks, this time increase is negligible. The new route is also estimated to reduce the likelihood of collision by 81%, which is good news for both whales and shipping. The new route was accepted by the International Maritime Organization, since which time ship captains have been voluntarily using it. The result is not only fewer collisions, but also less noise for the whales, which as I mentioned before will help them communicate and find food more effectively.

Wiley has also helped to develop WhaleAlert, an iPad app which provides real-time information from buoys showing the whereabouts of whales across the entire Eastern seaboard of the US, allowing captains to divert slightly and/or slow down in order to avoid these whales.

It’s a win for the whales, and it’s a win for the captains, as they don’t want to run into whales any more than whales want to run into them. Now all we need is for the whales to get their own iPad app, maybe a dating game, and we’ll be set.

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