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Whale Safe project trials mic’d buoys with AI scanning to help prevent ship strikes

Whale Safe project trials mic’d buoys with AI scanning to help prevent ship strikes


The algorithm has been trained to pick out whales’ Californian dialects among all the other sounds in the ocean.

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A humpback whale tail in the Atlantic Ocean.
Buoys equipped with onboard computers could use AI to help save humpback whales in the US from ship collisions.
Photo by Tim Graham / Getty Images

AI software monitoring sounds from within bright yellow buoys could reduce whale deaths by identifying whale species and pod locations. Scientists then verify the data and relay that information to any ships passing nearby, helping them to avoid the animals. The Whale Safe project was launched by Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory and partners, with the first Whale Safe systems already deployed in the Santa Barbara Channel near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Each buoy carries an onboard computer that records whale sounds using an underwater microphone. An AI algorithm then detects the clicks and squeals of specific whale species before transmitting the data via satellite every two hours, where a scientist will review the software’s results to check the whale sounds are being correctly identified. The location of the animals is then calculated by analyzing water conditions (via a separate machine learning model) and local records of whale sightings. If a ship is located within the calculated path of the animals, a notification can be issued to warn the crew. 

Over 80 endangered whales are killed by ship strikes in the West Coast region each year

Over 50 percent of all US container ship traffic passes through West Coast ports. Scientists estimate that over 80 endangered whales from a variety of native species, such as blue, fin, humpback, and gray, are killed by ship strikes in the region each year as they migrate to feeding grounds. “Whale-ship collisions continue to be a leading cause of death for endangered whales, but with these new kinds of monitoring technology and alert systems, fatalities have begun to decline,” said Marc Benioff, chair and co-CEO of Salesforce. 

The Whale Safe project team
The Whale Safe project is a collaboration of marine scientists from the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, who are developing systems to reduce whale fatalities from ship collisions.
Image: Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory

Benioff and his wife Lynne helped to create the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, a philanthropic endeavor led by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The organization has a three-step process to take ocean-related environmental concerns submitted by the community and then organize the required scientists and funding to resolve them. The organization is directed by Douglas McCauley, professor of ocean science at UCSB. “Different whale populations have different dialects,” McCauley told The Register. “To make this AI work in California, it required training the AI specifically using calls from these California whales.”

The AI algorithm has some whale accents to brush up on. The team has hopes to deploy more AI-powered buoys in other American coastal areas such as Seattle, Vancouver, and San Diego and hasn’t ruled out that the Whale Safe project could one day have a global reach to more international regions.