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Vessel strike technology workshop

Calf of Juno © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute
Calf of Juno © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute
© Forever Hooked Charters of South Carolina, injured North Atlantic right whale 2024 calf of Juno (#1612) seen with injuries on the head, mouth, and left lip consistent with vessel strike.
© Forever Hooked Charters of South Carolina, injured North Atlantic right whale 2024 calf of Juno (#1612) seen with injuries on the head, mouth, and left lip consistent with vessel strike.

Detection and mitigation

My heart broke when I heard the news that Juno’s calf did not survive after being severely injured from a vessel strike earlier this year. Juno was the first documented mom this season and the loss of her calf from a preventable vessel strike is devastating. This baby is no longer suffering, but there are still 16 newborns who need to be protected. 

That morning, I was heading to Washington, DC to take part in NOAA’s vessel strike technology workshop. Dr. Janet Coit, assistant administrator for NOAA, mentioned Juno’s calf in her opening statement at the workshop, a poignant reminder of why we were all there.   

I often joke with my staff that much of the work we do, like attending these workshops, is not what National Geographic wants to film and will never make us famous. The work we do will, however, give this species a fighting chance to swim safely along our coasts.   

This workshop focused on technologies that will improve detecting whales. Each has its benefits and limitations, but none provide the solution as to what to do once a whale is located. There is a stark difference between detection and mitigation. Detection tells you there is a whale in your vicinity, mitigation is what needs to happen to avoid the collision. 

Detection

Visual

Upside: Aerial and boat-based surveys provide the opportunity to locate whales in real time. It also allows images to be collected which can identify who the whales are, if a female has a calf, assess their health, and document if they are entangled or injured.   

Downside: Visual surveys are weather dependent, expensive, and there is an element of human safety concerns for those involved. In addition, you can only detect the whales when they are at the surface, so some individuals are undoubtedly missed during long dives.

Acoustic

Upside: Passive acoustic monitoring provides opportunities to locate whales in near real time 24 hours a day through their vocalizations.   

Downside: They can tell you if a whale is in an area a certain distance from the receiver but can’t tell you how many, who they are, or if they are injured or entangled. While they can tell you if whales are in the area, they can’t tell you if there are whales in the area who are not vocalizing as whales do not talk constantly.

Tagging

Right whale suction cup tag © HDR Inc NOAA permit 21482
Right whale suction cup tag © HDR Inc NOAA permit 21482

Upside: Depending on the tag type (implant or suction cup), a variety of information can be obtained. Short term suction cups, or DTAGs, are only meant to stay on for hours, but can provide information about how whales move underwater, record their vocalizations, collect environmental data, and even get video recordings of the whale and their surroundings. Implant tags are embedded in either the skin, blubber, or muscle. They are meant to stay on longer than DTAGs and can last for days, weeks, or in some cases, months before the whale’s body rejects them. Long term tags preserve battery life by using saltwater switches, which means the tag works when the whale comes to the surface and the antennae hits the air. They give information on where a whale is hanging out or traveling to over time.   

Downside: Particularly for implant tags, there is a risk of infection anytime you implant a foreign object into the skin of a whale. For critically endangered right whales, the risk of further compromising the health of individuals is of significant concern. In addition, the tags are expensive and so is their deployment, which requires trained researchers and vessel time. Not every single whale can be located and tagged on a continual basis.

Thermal

Thermal infrared cameras © Dan Zitterbart/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Thermal infrared cameras © Dan Zitterbart/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Upside: Infrared or thermal cameras can detect the heat of a whale’s body or spout when visibility is limited, especially during the nighttime. Computer software is used to learn if the heat signature is coming from a whale surfacing versus a bird or some other source.   

Downside: These are extremely expensive and are limited to the area in which the cameras' range is targeted, and their effectiveness can be impacted by environmental conditions like fog, rain, or ambient temperatures. Because they only detect whales at the surface, they will not identify right whales who are frequently known to travel just below the surface for extended periods of time.

Predictive modeling

A map showing the critical habitats and other high use areas of the North Atlantic right whale
A map showing the critical habitats and other high use areas of the North Atlantic right whale

Upside: Location models use huge amounts of sightings data obtained over years to predict where and when whales are likely to be found in a particular area. Like tracking years of school bus transits, you can predict when and where schools are in session.   

Downside: Models are based on general data, not on individual tracking. They give broad seasonality and location information but need to constantly be updated to understand that habitats are changing in a changing climate. They also do not provide information on individuals or opportunistic sightings. Using the school analogy again, if you don’t constantly follow busses and keep up with data, you may not know a new school is built and there is a new area that needs to be protected. Or a subset of students may be on a field trip and absent from school, leaving them in need of protection outside of the school system which is the only place the model shows they are.

Mitigation

Mitigation is the action you take once you know whales are in the area. Can you take evasive action in time to avoid a collision? And, if so, how far away do you need to detect the whale in order to take action?

Altering course

© NOAA Fisheries Lisa Conger
© NOAA Fisheries Lisa Conger
© Francois Gohier
© Francois Gohier
© Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission NOAA permit 20556-01
© Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission NOAA permit 20556-01

Vessels are not one size fits all. Large ships need miles to change course and speed, while smaller vessels can generally alter course and speed quickly. However, large vessels like ships have viewing platforms high off the water and can see things much further away while smaller vessels, which are closer to the water line, are less likely to detect whales at a distance because their line of sight is smaller. Imagine the difference between how far you can see standing on the lawn in front of the Washington monument versus how far you can see if you climb to the top of it.   

It's also important to remember that boats do not have brakes like cars. You can take an engine out of gear but the forward momentum of moving continues to propel the boat forward for a while, depending on how fast the vessel was going. In order to stop a vessel, you often need to put it in reverse. However, rapidly putting a vessel’s engine in reverse can damage the engine, a dangerous risk if you are offshore in poor sea conditions and are no longer able to navigate your vessel.   

And then there is the physics of a collision itself. Basically, the force of a collision is a combination of how fast the vessel is moving and how much it weighs. That means a small vessel going fast could apply as much force in a collision as a ship going slowly. The difference being how much damage the vessel will also face in the collision, another real risk of smaller boats hitting whales.

Speed limits

Speed limits provide more time to alter course if a whale is detected and give the whale more time to react as well. In addition, if the collision is unavoidable, the force of the collision is substantially less if the vessel is moving slowly. Research based on the speeds of vessels involved in known collisions with whales show that a whale has the best chance of surviving a collision if the vessel is operating at no more than 10 knots. These data was the base for the original vessel strike speed rule that WDC helped to get in place in 2008 and make permanent in 2013. A review of this rule showed that right whale collision risk was reduced by 80-90% based on where and when right whales were present.   

However, around 2010, there was a massive change in oceanic conditions in the western North Atlantic, moving right whales into new areas where and when protections from vessel strikes were not in place. Beginning in 2017, a notable increase in right whale mortalities as a result of accidental entanglements and vessel strikes was detected as whales moved into new habitats. Since that time, at least 20 right whales have been killed or injured by vessel strikes. Given that only 1/3 of right whale mortalities are detected, we know this number is an underestimate of the actual number of whales struck and killed.

Current speed rule improvement

Injured calf of Juno © DNR NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359
Injured calf of Juno © DNR NOAA MMHSRP permit 24359

In 2020, 2022, and 2023, WDC and our partners petitioned the government to improve the current speed rule to reduce vessel strikes. As a result of inaction, we went to court to demand that new regulations be implemented to protect right whales. Our court case remains active, and we are continuing to give Juno’s calf, and all right whales a voice to make the ocean safer for them.   

National Geographic may not be interested in filming this workshop, but these meetings are essential to finding solutions to protect these whales. Our ability to participate is possible because of your support, thank you.

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