Whale app turns users into data sources

09/26/2013

Next time you are sailing in the Golden Gate and you spot a humpback whale jumping up against the horizon, fear not: there’s now an app for that. 

Bay Area scientists on a weeklong research expedition that began yesterday tested the “Whale Spotter” mobile application, which they hope can crowdsource location data to prevent fatal collisions between migratory whales and commercial ships traveling in and out of San Francisco Bay. 

“We need a way to gather real-time data about where whales are likely to congregate given how many ships travel near their feeding areas,” said Dr. Jaime Jahncke, director of California Current research group for environmental nonprofit Point Blue. “This will in turn better inform decisions by wildlife management agencies and the shipping industry.” 

At the beginning of the fall, blue and humpback whales visit the Bay Area to feed on schools of fish and tiny shrimp called krill. But the large mammals may also cross shipping lanes travelled by as many as 7,300 large ship transits each year, Mr. Jahncke said. 

In 2010, at least four endangered whales were documented as having been struck by ships, and this year, several dead whales have washed ashore in the Bay Area from confirmed or suspected collisions. Others may have been killed by ships and never made it ashore, instead sinking in the ocean. 

Since scientists can only make a few expeditions each year, “the goal is to get more eyes on the water,” said Melissa Pitkin, the director of education and outreach for Point Blue.

The app’s release improves on years of collaboration between scientists and the Coast Guard. This June, the shipping lanes into the bay were altered to narrow traffic near feeding grounds and avoid areas near the coast where whales concentrate. The app will allow greater precision in management decisions and potential rerouting of traffic with real-time information contributed by commercial ships, researchers, fishers and whale-watching naturalists. 

The data will be vetted with aerial surveys and observations by biologists stationed at sea or on the Southeast Farallon Island, and shared with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service. 

“It’s a commonsense solution,” said John Berge, a spokesman for the Pacific Merchants Shipping Association. “No ship captain wants to hit a whale.” 

The app, developed by Conserve.IO, is available for free through iTunes.