Scientists may track whales from space!

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

whales space
Say “cheese”, whales, you’re on camera!

Keeping track of whales usually involves counting the large mammals from the deck of a ship, a coast’s sandy shores, or an airplane. Now, however, researchers have found a new method that’s out of this world… literally. By using high definition satellite images and special software, a recent study demonstrated how accurate tracking the whales from space could be. Now, scientists are planning to use this method and technology to track whale populations in the future.

For the study, researchers used a special satellite called the WorldView-2, one of the most powerful ones available. This thing is so strong, it’s capable of seeing an object that’s only 50 centimeters wide on Earth… all the way from space! So, the researchers ran a test search to see which method worked better at spotting whales: a scientist’s sharp eyes or image-processing software on a computer.

For the experiment, they looked for whales swimming near the surface of Golfo Nuevo off the coast of Argentina. The computer program was able to find 90% of the whales that the expert humans did, which is better than any other attempts to do the same thing. Why the 10% difference? Scientists believe it may have been caused by murky water that confused the imaging program. However, as the satellite improves and takes sharper images, the software could eventually find more whales in the big blue ocean.


Image of satellite photos courtesy of Fretwell PT, Staniland IJ, Forcada J on PLOS One.