Using infrared cameras to avoid whale collisions

New thermal imaging cameras are being trialled on boats and harbours in an attempt to prevent collisions between whales and boats. But just how successful can they be at detecting whales and how far can they go in protecting them?

The infrared camera system in action in British Columbia, Canada

Collisions between whales and boats have unfortunately become a very common occurrence in today’s oceans. In certain species such as right whales and orcas we are even seeing a sharp decrease in their numbers as a result. They become disorientated and confused by the loud noise of the engines and the boats often fail to see the helpless cetaceans in the water before it’s too late. But a new technology is being trialled on vessels and in harbour areas in an attempt to detect them much faster. Using specially designed infrared cameras to detect heat rather than light it could become much easier to spot the majestic creatures lurking beneath the waves. If successful the technology could be used to create a warning network that could drastically reduce the number of collisions. But how does it work and how far can it really go in protecting these species?

‘Roadkill’ in the ocean

Collisions with boats are becoming a serious concern for almost all species of whales and dolphins in harbours and shipping lanes across the world. But those that spend more time at the surface are at increased risk. One of the most at risk species are North Atlantic right whales who are now critically endangered. There are only believed to be around 400 left and at least seven have been killed by collisions in Cananda this year, although the actual number is believed to be much higher. At this rate collisions could prevent the species from ever recovering properly. Another at risk group are southern resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest that have seen their numbers drastically decrease in the last few decades due to increased collisions in narrow straits. In the Canary Islands there is also believed to be high numbers of collisions with sperm and humpback whales and in Sri Lanka blue whales are under threat. Vanessa Pirotta, a marine biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, told NBC News that a “ship strike is essentially roadkill” but of a much more intelligent creature. There are some warning systems in place already such as the WhaleAlert app but they do very little to mitigate the problem.

killer whales
Killer whales in the Pacific Northwest are constantly coming into close contact with boats of all types

Tracking heat

The major problem with boat collisions is that it can be very hard to spot whales in the water before it is too late. So just how do we spot them faster? The answer thought Dan Zitterbart, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, is heat. He realised that the main way whales and other cetaceans stand out in the expansive open ocean is with temperature. Whales are mammals and because of this they keep their bodies at a constant temperature that is much warmer than the cold waters they live in. Using specialised cameras that detect infrared radiation rather than visible light they start to stick out as if they were covered in bright neon paint. Dan and his team hope that an improved detection system will reduce the number of collisions with ships. He explained to WCAI that most vessels involved in collisions are “pretty manoeuvrable” and can “slow down pretty quickly” when needed. Although he admits it may be less effective with large tankers and cargo ships.

Whales become much more visible in the infrared spectrum than with visible light

Dan and his team are currently involved in trial studies to test whether their new system can actually spot the whales and prevent collisions. They are being funded by the Canadian government who have promised to better protect the whales in their waters. The first study is already well underway using the infrared camera system on a ferry terminal on Galiano Island in British Columbia. The aim is to see how effective the system is at detecting the resident killer whales. The second phase will be to put the cameras directly onto the boats in the area. This will begin in early 2020 and will not only detect whales in front of the vessels but also warn other ships in the area if they are spotted. An attached computer system using artificial intelligence will create a real-time warning system based on the position of other cameras. Vanessa Pirotta described the idea as “a step forward” and “another piece in the puzzle” of preventing collisions.

Future possibilities

So if the trial studies are successful at detecting whales and preventing collisions, just how helpful can this system be for whales? Dan Zitterbart believes that his new system won’t replace current warning systems but rather work with them. He told NBC News that “there is not the grand unified solution for all the places and all the species” when it comes to collisions but rather a “mix of solutions” will make the most difference. So what other technologies could be used alongside thermal imaging camera? One system already in place is acoustic monitoring where sound arrays pick up the noises of whales, which travel a long way underwater, to provide an early warning system in busy areas. Drones, both with and without infrared cameras, could also be added into the mix. If the thermal imaging cameras do work then they will be able to work alongside these to maximise the amount of information available to vessels. This is important because every avoided collision helps species like the right whale in their bid for survival.

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