Thermal imaging could slash whale strikes

Ship strikes often go unnoticed by the vessel crew, even though the whales are carried long distances. Photo: IWC/David Laist
Ship strikes often go unnoticed by the vessel crew, even though the whales are carried long distances. Photo: IWC/David Laist
Ship strikes are impacting the populations of Bryde´s whale   in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Photo, Katja Kirschner
Ship strikes are impacting the populations of Bryde´s whale in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Photo, Katja Kirschner
Thermal imaging systems can warn of large marine mammals at a distance great enough for ships to take evasive action. Image: Ocean Life Survey
Thermal imaging systems can warn of large marine mammals at a distance great enough for ships to take evasive action. Image: Ocean Life Survey

Conservationists are seeking ship owners and ports to trial thermal imaging hardware that could reduce the number of whales dying from ship strikes.

According to the International Whaling Commission’s ship strike database more than 1,200 whales have died since 2009. However, the real number of deaths could be significantly greater; the relative size of ships means that the vast majority of impacts are likely go undetected.

“The recorded numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Martin Stanley, founder and principal research officer of whale conservation organisation Ocean Life Survey. “Usually the only person to notice anything is the chief engineer, who might spot fuel consumption rising if the whale gets dragged along by the hull,”

Stanley is calling for ports, container and cruise lines to help trial thermal imaging technology which can detect whales from up to 5km away, enough distance to allow even large commercial vessels to avoid ship strikes. A thermal imaging kit developed by Ocean Life Survey and initially trialled with tourism operator Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari has been used to detect and avoid Bryde’s whales in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland,

The heat signatures of whales’ bodies and breath can be detected during both day and night, and tests have been successfully conducted over the full range of seasonal, weather, and sea conditions, and throughout all whale behaviour states. However, the first iteration of the system needs constant monitoring, which is not plausible for longer routes.

The latest version has an automated alarm. “When it sounds the camera will already be focused on the spot, so you can see the image as the whale surfaces on the screen and which direction it is facing,” said Stanley: “The captain can then make a decision about the likelihood of collision.”

The technology could also be deployed on coastal vantage points around busy port waters to provide additional coverage and protection. This would help in the conservation efforts of large whale species, many of which are threatened or endangered.

The issue is slowly being recognised. In 2015, Ports of Auckland worked with shipping lines to reduce ship speed in the Hauraki Gulf from 14.2 knots to 12 knots. Although partially successful, the measure impacted trade and technical solutions are now being considered instead.

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