UCSB’s ocean science laboratory is using artificial intelligence to prevent whale deaths

The leading cause of death for large whales is ship collision. UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory is working to reduce the number of these collisions by tracking them across the California coast using artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

This past September, UCSB’s WhaleSafe program launched its second research vessel into San Francisco Bay, while the first vessel sits next to the Port of Long Beach.

They track whales that migrate along the central coast, including blue whales, humpback whales and fin whales.

Rachel Rhodes is a project scientist for the Benioff Lab working on WhaleSafe. She said whale-ship collisions on the California coast happen more often than many might think.

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“There are estimates that about 80 endangered whales are killed off the West Coast each year. So again, it’s just kind of a nuanced number of the actual reported ship strikes, because it’s just a fraction of what we’re seeing,” Rhodes said.

According to Rhodes, the risk of a shipping strike is high at ports in Long Beach and Oakland. Their solution is an AI-powered, real-time whale detection system that allows mariners to know if there are whales in busy shipping areas.


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Whale sharks sometimes wash up on Central Coast beaches during their migration up and down the coast.

“We have three different types of technology that feed into that for this whale presence assessment of what’s happening on the water at any given time,” Rhodes said.

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Rhodes said there are three parts to the design of their whale tracking system. The first and most important part is an underwater microphone that monitors ocean noise 24/7. And, with their AI technology, they are able to identify each whale by the noises they make.

The second piece of information they use is satellite data of ocean conditions to predict whether whales are likely to be around.

“That was a model built from 104 satellite tags of blue whales to understand their habitat preference, but it’s dynamically updated every day based on the OSHA graphic conditions, letting us know the forecast for the region,” Rhodes said.

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And the last piece is data collected from whale watching.

“The three come together in our system and we synthesize it into a simpler version which is a ‘whale presence assessment.'” Similar to [the] Smokey the Bear fire hazard sign. I think that’s the best analogy because it’s a rating that goes from low, medium, high to very high,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said they receive hourly updates from the various data streams, which they send out to ship captains and resource managers.

With 2018 and 2019 seeing the highest rates of whale collisions, UCSB’s Benioff Lab is asking mariners to use their platform to slow down nearby whales to avoid collisions.

Updates on nearby whales can be found on WhaleSafe’s public website.


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