New way to monitor whale populations from space could help preserve them

The scientists have found that studying high-resolution images of whales from space is a possible way to estimate their population. The team, led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), compared satellite imagery with data from traditional ship surveys. This is reported in Scientific Reports. This research is a major step towards developing a cost-effective method for studying whales in remote and inaccessible locations. It will help scientists track changes in the population and understand their behavior.

The results show that the satellite-estimated whale densities were about one-third of the ship’s estimates. It’s good news. Although satellites have lower detection rates than ships, they still detect enough whales to make the method useful, for example, for monitoring changes in whale numbers, especially in remote regions where traditional surveys are more difficult and expensive.

The study was conducted in the Antarctic Peninsula, a major summer food forage for many baleen whale species. Satellite images of the Gerlache Strait area, covering ~ 1000 km², were acquired over a two-day period and compared with the annual Brazilian Antarctic Program survey of sea whales, which is being conducted at the same time.

Satellite imagery provides a viable way to collect large amounts of whale sighting data, with the ability to estimate whale densities at unmatched spatial and temporal scales.

Connor Bamford, study lead author, ecologist at the University of Southampton

While this is a new method and we still have a lot of work to do, we hope it will pave the way for further developments that will provide low-budget whale data collection tools in the future. This will complement existing observations and help work in remote areas to protect whale populations and their feeding grounds.

New methods offer exciting opportunities, but they also require extensive testing before they take effect. One of the challenges is the ability to count underwater whales. Further work is underway using machine learning tools to help identify whales from satellite imagery.