Protecting Whales: Counting Them From Space

After seeing their numbers slashed due to overhunting in the 20th century, North Atlantic right whales still face plenty of threats, including ship strikes, habitat degradation and pollution. A mother and her calf are seen in this aerial image from 2005. ( NOAA/NMFS NOAA News via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic )

Can Scientists Protect North Atlantic Right Whales by Counting Them From Space?

by Brigit Katz/

Counting animal populations is one of the key ways that conservationists gauge the wellbeing of a given species. But certain creatures are hard to track—like whales, which can traverse thousands of miles of miles across the ocean, sometimes to remote feeding grounds. Now, the New England Aquarium in Boston is collaborating with Draper, a Massachusetts-based engineering firm, on a cutting-edge project to monitor whale species—one that involves counting the marine mammals from space.

Experts will gather satellite sonar and radar data, relying on sources ranging from European space agencies to amateur radio operators, according to the Associated Press. The project, aptly titled “Counting Whales from Space,” seeks to create a probability map of where whale species might be located, which will in turn allow conservationists to monitor where the animals are going, and why.

“If whales are moving out of one area and into another, what’s the reason for that?” asks John Irvine, Draper’s chief scientist for data analytics, in an interview with the AP. “Is it due to ocean warming? Is it changes in commercial shipping lanes? These are all questions we’ll be able to start answering once we have the data.”

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