Using big data to save giant whales

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Using big data to save giant whales

MarineTraffic provides data management tools to SAve the Whales, an innovative initiative that aims to protect endangered mammals from being struck by ships

MarineTraffic is working to save the endangered whales of the Mediterranean as part of an innovative research project.

The multinational inter-disciplinary ‘SAvE Whales’ project was launched earlier this year and combines expertise from the fields of marine biology, underwater acoustics, applied mathematics, computer networking, informatics and real-time marine traffic data. Its aim is to save endangered whales from being struck by [large] ships. ‘SAvE Whales’ stands for ‘System for the Avoidance of ship-strikes with Endangered whales’.

MarineTraffic is proud to be an important partner in the project, as the company’s founder Dimitris Lekkas recently explained. “MarineTraffic always engages closely with the global community to understand the challenges and communicate solutions. In SAvE Whales, we will provide the data management tools necessary for the protection of these important but endangered mammals,” Lekkas explained.

The project aims to develop and test an automated system that listens out for sperm whales, locate them across busy routes of shipping traffic and provide captains with real-time information allowing them to avoid collisions. The system will also be generating data, which can be useful for learning more about these animals and the impacts of human activities in their habitat, helping in this way the development of a more effective conservation approach. 

The pilot project is scheduled to last three years and will be carried out in Greek waters, the home of endangered sperm whales. If successful, the system will serve as an effective conservation tool and has the potential to be replicated in other regions, thereby protecting whale species from being hit by large ships in other oceans, too.

The deep underwater canyons of the Hellenic Trench off Greece are home to around 200 sperm whales, the largest toothed animal species on earth. The species classifies as endangered in the Mediterranean Sea and these animals are the last remaining of their kind in the entire eastern Mediterranean region. And while nowadays ingestion of plastic litter, entanglement in fishing gear and intense noise emissions pose a serious threat to the species also reaching fame as “Moby Dick”, by far the most serious threat in the eastern Mediterranean is to collide with a large commercial ship.

The area which has been identified by long-term research as an important feeding as well as breeding ground for sperm whales, is also an extremely busy shipping lane. All marine traffic of large vessels moving from the Adriatic Sea to the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea or south eastern Mediterranean or towards the Suez Canal and vice-versa crosses this core habitat [see the graph. Source PLOS One article]. About 30 percent of the world’s shipping traffic occurs in the Mediterranean Sea. This small semi-enclosed sea suffers proportionally the heaviest maritime traffic than any other sea in the globe. It is estimated that more than 220,000 large vessels cross the Mediterranean Sea every year. 31,000 among them cross the Hellenic Trench while entering or exiting the Aegean Sea through the Elafonisos and Kythira Straits and 13,000 sail parallel to the Ionian Islands (Kefallonia and Zakynthos) along with the core habitat of the sperm whales in the Hellenic Trench heading either north or south. This is what the sperm whales have to face on a daily basis.

Because of the high importance of the Hellenic Trench for the survival of the sperm whales (as well as for another deep diving cetacean species present: the Cuvier’s beaked whale) the Hellenic Trench was one of the first areas to be included in 2017 by the IUCN Task Force in the list of IMMAs, which stands for Important Marine Mammal Areasaround the globe.

Experts from different fields now team up within an ambitious project that shall provide an effective solution to prevent collisions between ships and whales, in areas where shipping traffic cannot be moved away from whale habitat and has to cross it. The project is led by top whale researcher, Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, from the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (PCRI), and brings on board experts from the Institute of Applied and Computational Mathematics of theFoundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH)Centro de Investigacao Tecnologica do Algarve of the University of AlgarveGreen2Sustain and MarineTraffic. The Swiss-based and internationally acting marine conservation organisation OceanCare, which runs a large-scale programme protecting marine wildlife in the Mediterranean Sea is enabling the project. OceanCare has secured funds to give the green light to start it and is working to raise the remaining funds in the coming months.

“We are fully committed to this ambitious, visionary and solution-oriented project. We have hope and trust in this pilot which could become a true whale-saving model to be applied in other regions across the globe” says Sigrid Lüber, president of OceanCare who founded the organisation exactly 30 years ago.

“Although Aristoteles was aware of the presence of sperm whales in the Greek seas some 2,350 years ago, this knowledge was lost with the centuries. When in 1998 we discovered that sperm whales were living close to the southwest coasts of Crete -in the very same area where the ‘SAvE Whales’ project will take place- we had no idea about their number, their degree of residency, or the potential threats that they were facing,” Lüber added.

“We just had a strong will to learn as much as we could about their lives and follow them at the personal level one by one (through photo-identification) with the years, as they would get older and would acquire offspring in parallel to our own lives. Some fifteen years later we realised that if we were not going to act, the fate of this small eastern Mediterranean population was to disappear because of human activities that threaten it, with ship-strikes being the major threat locally capable to erase them from the map. We want them alive because the Mediterranean would become much poorer without its own Moby Dick and also because the Mediterranean sperm whales have the right to survive and live peacefully together with us in this region. This is why with innovative technology and a multidisciplinary approach we will make whatever possible to save these whales from extinction.” said Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, president of Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, who discovered the sperm whale population of the eastern Mediterranean some 20 years ago.

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