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[La Prensa Austral] Smart Whale Detection Buoys Could Reach the Strait


Collisions between vessels and whales have led to initiatives to avoid these accidents, which in recent years have significantly affected some species, considered endangered. Between 2007 and 2019, over 1,200 cetaceans died. In Chile, since 2017, eight whales have died because of this situation.

Considering that 90% of the transport of the world’s goods is through maritime routes, Meri Foundation and the Chilean Ministry of the Environment announced the development of an early warning pilot project in Northern Patagonia -called the Blue Boat Initiative- which, by means of smart buoys, will provide information to vessels about the close presence of these mammals to avoid collisions. The announcement was made this week at the online seminar “Oceans: Challenges and Solutions Associated with the Blue Economy” and considers the installation of these devices in the Corcovado Gulf and Chiloé Island.

The hydrophones located in the buoy will capture the sound of the whales and the build-in transmitter will be able to send via satellite and in real time the location of the mammal to the vessel. But in addition to this information, relevant data on oceanographic factors that affect climate change such as sea temperature, acidity, oxygen, among others, will be provided.

Sonia Español Jiménez, in charge of the Meri Foundation’s oceans area and designer of the project, said that “There will be three buoys in the interior sea and another three in the exterior, to monitor the whales that enter and leave this ecoregion, a main feeding area for whales.”

The vessels will receive a radio signal warning them of the presence of whales, so they can react and take the necessary steps to avoid a collision.

According to Español, “The foundation has been studying blue whales, mainly in the Corcovado Gulf, to determine why they are in this area and their behavior and movement patterns since 2012. Different scientific projects have been generated from this, which have included from the onset cetacean acoustics to study whales through their sounds. A large amount of scientific evidence shows that the behavior of whales is different at night when compared to the day. There is a higher risk of ship strikes during the night because whales rise to the surface to eat krill swarms. They are more vulnerable because they stay longer on the surface. At night there is also lower visibility, which increases the chances of collision. Because they are coming from greater depths and swimming at a certain speed to swallow their pray, their reaction capacity is poor, so they cannot turn around or avoid collision,” she explained.

This initiative was conceived from the experiences of other countries and the available technology. It needs to be evaluated. If it works out it will reach the Magellanic seas in the near future, “which, as we know, is a very important area for humpback whales, which have collided with vessels. This project does not seek to regulate vessel speed, but to be a tool that helps warn of the presence of whales so ships can reduce their speed or take other measures like having a lookout.”

Depending on the area, the buoys are designed to detect whales at a distance of 60 kilometers, mainly of the blue, humpback, sei, and right whale species, which are the most endangered. Another aspect to consider is the speed of each cetacean. “The sei whale is known to be very fast, so it should have a better ability to avoid collisions as long as they are detected or they become aware of the vessel. While other whales, such as the blue whale, are larger and have a greater risk of collision. Others are more curious, like the humpback, which have a little more tendency to approach boats,” said the designer of the project.

Photographs courtesy of Meri Foundation

Source: La Prensa Austral