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Infrared Cameras Could Help Ships Avoid Whales

Dan Zitterbart of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is developing thermal infrared cameras to help vessels avoid whale strikes.
Dan Zitterbart, WHOI
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Dan Zitterbart of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is developing thermal infrared cameras to help vessels avoid whale strikes.

Eight critically endangered North Atlantic right whales have died this summer, several of them hit by ships.

In the last two years alone, 20 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters. Of the 11 that could be studied, seven were found to have died as a result of vessel strikes.

That has prompted Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans to announce a new round of funding to develop better ways for ships to find whales and avoid hitting them. 

One of those technologies is thermal infrared imaging.

“What we are exploiting here is the apparent temperature contrast between the background, which is the ocean, and the whale spout itself,” Dan Zitterbart told Living Lab Radio.

Zitterbart is an assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and part of the team developing the technology.

“A very characteristic whale blow can be picked up in thermal infrared cameras as a warm feature compared to the background,” he said.

Zitterbart and his team have already shown that the concept works. By the end of 2020, they plan to have a prototype machine that they can test on commercial vessels. As a scientist, it isn’t Zitterbart’s role to commercialize the machine, but rather to get it to a point where it works without an expert at the helm.

Whether or not infrared cameras can help North Atlantic right whales is an open question. Zitterbart says the technology is more likely to help the fast ferries near the Canary Islands, for example.

“They have a massive problem with ship strikes of sperm whales,” he explained. “And they are pretty maneuverable ships, so they can slow down pretty quickly. If you’re talking about a supertanker, that's a different scale of the problem.”

Nevertheless, with only around 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, it’s time to throw everything we have at the problem, he said.

“We estimate every one of those [deaths] dramatically reduces the survival rate of the species,” Zitterbart said. “So, if we can get a piece of the pie with all the different technologies that are out there, I think that's the best we can do.”

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Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.