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This hi-tech buoy can detect whales and prevent large ships from colliding with them


Last August, the ocean science community lost one of its most beloved figures.

DOUGLAS MCCAULEY: Many people knew Fran because of her beauty and popularity, but a lot of people knew the other side of Fran, which is that Fran was a mom.

SHAPIRO: Fran was a humpback whale, one of the most frequently sighted humpbacks on the Pacific coast. She was killed last month, likely from a collision with a large shipping vessel. The voice we just heard remembering her belongs to Douglas McCauley He's a professor of ocean sciences and directs the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at UC Santa Barbara. He and his team have developed a new technology called Whale Safe, designed to help prevent that kind of collision. It started operating around San Francisco Bay this week. Professor McCauley, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MCCAULEY: Thanks for having me. Excited to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Just for context, any idea how many whales each year die from ship collisions? How large a problem is this?

MCCAULEY: You know, it's a difficult number to estimate because the largest fraction of whales that are actually killed in these collisions, we never see. But scientists estimate that about 80 endangered whales are killed along the U.S. West Coast alone.

SHAPIRO: And so the number of non-endangered whales obviously is much higher. Tell me about Whale Safe. How does that work?

MCCAULEY: What it does is it uses three different inputs. We have a buoy that's constantly listening to ocean noise. Aboard that buoy is a computer that's trying to automatically identify the cause of whales - down to species, actually. Then in the sky, there's also intel that's coming from satellite, creating a weather forecast for whales. And then the last input comes from the world's best whale detector, which remains us. So there's an app that allows citizen scientists and naturalists that are on whale-watching boats to record when they see any of these endangered whales. And it all pipes together into this whale alert.

SHAPIRO: And what does that mean for a captain on board a ship?

MCCAULEY: Well, what we ask is that the same way that when motorists are going by a busy school, when kids are in session, they make that school zone safer by simply slowing down. Research shows that when ships slow down when whales are present, they actually save whale lives. So that alert goes to the bridges of ships. And then we ask that the ships slow down when there are whales in these ocean highways.

SHAPIRO: We've been hearing so much about the challenges facing the shipping industry from the supply chain to the pandemic. I could imagine shipping companies saying, you want us to factor in this, too?

MCCAULEY: I'm pretty sympathetic to the importance and also the complexity of shipping. I grew up in a port town around the port of LA, so I understand how important vibrant shipping - what that means for communities and for jobs and for families. So we want that industry to keep growing. But what's been really encouraging to us is that some companies have simply said, this is important to us, whales are important to us, we are an ocean business, so we care about the oceans.

One of the world's largest shipping lines, a French company called CMA CGM is actually planning this data directly into their fleet operations center. And every time that whale alert goes above medium, they're sending an alert directly to their ship captains, telling them to slow down. That kind of leadership is very encouraging. These folks are the world's best logisticians, right? They can deal with some complex stuff that Mother Nature and the ocean throws at them. So it's simply adding in one more piece of data. And I think it's very much within the realm of possibility, within the realm of reality for them to take a leadership position on whale conservation.

SHAPIRO: What's your long-term goal for this program?

MCCAULEY: I don't want to see another situation like Fran. I want to see numbers and whale ship deaths drop to zero. It's a hard thing to detect, but we think it's working.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, it must be hard to know if it's working if most whale ship collisions are never actually seen.

MCCAULEY: So you'll see something in the order of 5% or 10% of all the whales that are actually killed. When you see them, it's a tragedy. Sometimes these gigantic skyscraper-sized ships come right into port with a blue whale, the biggest animal that's ever lived on the planet, an endangered whale wrapped around their bow. But indeed, most of the whales simply sink and die. But because we see a small fraction, we can actually statistically get some sense of how well these interventions are working. And the good news is that shipping companies in the area where Whale Safe has already been in operation for bumping up their compliance, which is also something that makes us happy.

SHAPIRO: That's professor Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at UC Santa Barbara. Thanks a lot.

MCCAULEY: My pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.