The Santa Barbara Canal is a hot spot for ships hitting whales. Three endangered species of whales (humpback, blue and fin) come to the area to feed between May and November. Add to that tight international shipping lanes between the mainland and the Channel Islands, and things can get bloody.
“We have this huge overlap of endangered whales in a commercial ocean highway, crossing their feeding grounds,” says Callie Steffen, scientist with the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UC Santa Barbara. She runs a program called Whale Safe, which aims to reduce collisions between ships and whales.
The Whale Safe program, launched in 2019, works in three parts. First, an acoustic monitoring system uses underwater microphones to detect whales. Second, Benioff’s “dynamic blue whale habitat model” uses data to predict where whales will be found. Third, the program relies on whale watching data from trained observers and citizen scientists aboard whale watching vessels.
The program compiles all of the data together to create what they call “the whale presence assessment”, which ranges from low to very high. Think of it as a Smokey the Bear fire resistance rating, but for whales.
Whale presence score: VERY HIGH
Acoustic detections: humpback, finned.
Observations: 0 blue, 19 with hump, 0 aileron.https: //t.co/qrI7CWx3ud pic.twitter.com/sQnn50ANcA
– Whale Safe – California (@whalesafe_ca) August 31, 2021
This data is available through the website, email alerts and Twitter feed. Shipping companies can easily integrate data into their communications and slow down when “whale presence rates” are high.
Steffen says that today around 55% of all ships crossing the canal are slowing down, a huge improvement from the start of the program.
“But it’s still not enough. We would like to see that number get closer to 100, ”she said.
Scientists estimate that 80 endangered whales are killed on the west coast of the United States by ships each year. These estimates are most likely lower than the actual number of dead whales, as many sink to the ocean floor and go unnoticed.