The New England Aquarium Wants To Monitor Whales From Space

Nov 2, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 3:51 pm

The New England Aquarium and Cambridge-based engineering company Draper have some big news: They’re working on technology that will allow them to monitor whales with satellites in space.

Leaving the planet to watch whales might sound a little silly, but the ability to do it could represent a giant leap forward in our ability to protect these animals and our oceans.

“Counting whales from space is really important to providing the scientific justification for [identifying] places in the ocean that are special and need protection,” says Kelly Kryc, director of conservation policy and leadership at the New England Aquarium. She adds that if we know where the whales are, and where they’re likely to go, we can try to limit human activity like fishing, shipping and energy exploration in those places.

Currently, when scientists look for whales and other large marine animals, they almost always do so from boats or planes. But these methods are weather-dependent, costly, sometimes dangerous, “and you can only go out infrequently, so you don’t get a very good sense of what’s happening at a high resolution in both time and space,” Kyrc says. If we could watch them from space, we could do a better job tracking them over longer periods of time, she adds.

But photographing whales from space is easier said than done.

“When we think about looking at the ocean from space, there are a couple of challenges to detecting whales,” says John Irvine, Draper’s chief data scientist. “One is how far into the water can you see? And the second is that the ocean is big. There are issues of how much can we look at it realistically.”

While current technology enables us to photograph parts of the ocean at a high enough resolution to detect whales near the surface, these images only capture a small area. And whales travel great distances.

So instead of deploying many more high-resolution satellites into space — something that’s definitely cost prohibitive — Irvine says the aquarium and his company plan to use other “smart sensor technologies” to identify where to use the satellite cameras.

“Using radar imaging satellites and information about ocean currents, the ocean floor, temperature gradients — our thinking is, we can essentially create a probability map of the ocean that says these are the areas to image at these times,” he says. In other words, “we can actually target our limited high-quality satellite collection resources in a way that will give us the most information.”

“When you bring all these data collection techniques together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” says Sheila Hemami, director of global challenges at Draper. Hemami is coordinating much of the partnership, and says it all started when she told someone at the aquarium about Draper’s project to monitor Zambian hippos from space.

“We got the idea, ‘Hey, hippos are large animals and they are in the water and near the surface of the water, and that’s not so different from a whale. And perhaps we can apply what we’re learning from counting hippos from space to counting whales from space,’ ” she says.

So first with hippos, and now with whales, this new partnership is about to boldly go where no one has gone before — well, in about five years. That’s how long the the two organizations think it will take to make the technology operational.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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