Scientists want to make the seas safer by teaching ships to speak whale

Listening to blue whales' songs could keep them safe from ships.

The world’s oceans have never been a more dangerous place for marine life. Massive ships, rising temperatures, and widespread pollution all pose serious threats to wildlife. Migrating blue whales are particularly at risk of colliding with ships. Although it might not be possible to avoid whales entirely, scientists have an idea that might help keep them out of harm’s way.

A team of researchers from Stanford University wants to teach ship captains to listen to the blue whales’ song. The team found distinct changes that occur just before the world’s largest animal begins its annual southern migration. By listening to the waves and detecting those changes, it might be possible to warn ships when blue whales are in the area.

Shut Up and Listen

Humans aren’t kind to nature, at least not on a planetary level. However, unless we do something to start protecting the world’s wildlife, we could have an ecological disaster to clean up.

Blue whales are typically found in the northeastern Pacific Ocean during the summer months. However, as temperatures there grow colder, the giant mammals migrate down the coast to Central America in search of warmer waters and more abundant food sources.

The Stanford team found that the whales actually change their song before starting their migration. According to the researchers’ study in the journal Current Biology, the whales start singing during the day—rather than their usual nighttime chorus—before moving south.

Stanford biologist and co-author of the study William Oestreich told Popular Science, “There is a near real-time signal of what these animals are doing out in a habitat that’s historically been really difficult to observe.”

Researchers have been using underwater microphones to monitor the songs of 15 blue whales in Monterey Bay for more than five years. After combining those recordings with GPS data, they were able to determine how the songs related to the whales’ migration patterns.

Making Changes

While this research is very helpful, it doesn’t mean anything if it can’t be applied in the real world. Fortunately, researchers believe that it can be.

Oestreich says, “There has been a quite noticeable number of fatal collisions between ships and blue whales.”

Obviously, that’s bad news. Ships aren’t going to stop moving anytime soon. So, an approach that keeps whales safe and keeps shipping lanes open is necessary. Oestreich and his team believe that monitoring the blue whales’ songs could be an ideal solution. He says, “That could be one piece of the puzzle to more dynamically manage those habitats and shipping lanes in a way that allows shipping to continue, but also in a way that is safe for these whale populations.”

The intersection of science and technology never fails to yield amazing results. Although this approach isn’t a perfect answer, it could greatly decrease the risk of ships running into whales. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Thanks to continued innovations in the tech space, the world is becoming a safer and better place not only for humans but also for the animals we share the planet with.


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