Californian marine biologists are testing a smartphone application that would allow whales to be detected in the San Francisco Bay and to steer ships away from them.
The Whale Spotter app, developed by a mobile technology company Conserve.IO, will be used to map the feeding grounds of the endangered mammals that are frequently fatally hit by large ships as they migrate along the California coast.
Scientists are mostly concerned about five localities – marine sanctuaries - two of which are located directly on the route ships have to pass when sailing into San Francisco Bay.
"This app is an opportunity for citizen scientists - people who love these waters - to contribute to protecting whales in the sanctuaries, giving us extra eyes on the water," said Greenpeace campaigner Jackie Dragon.
Trained observers with an interest in whales will enter data about whale sightings into a global database, adding information about the animals’ behaviour.
In June, new information about migratory patterns led to the rerouting of three shipping lanes into the San Francisco Bay, but scientists say they need more information on the location of whales along the California coast.
Large vessels struck whales at least 100 times in California between 1988 and 2012, said Monica DeAngelis, a National Marine Fisheries Service marine mammal biologist.
She estimates the true number could be 10 times higher given that whale injuries tend to go unreported, as the hit the creatures often sink to the bottom of the ocean.
A similar app is already available to commercial shippers travelling along the US Atlantic coast. Called the Whale Alert, the app relays information to ship crews and helps them steer clear of critically endangered right whales, only 400 of which remain in the region.
Conserve.IO, the creator of both apps, would eventually like to merge the two platforms and make them available to all shippers around the world.
"The vision of Whale Alert and Spotter is to support the worldwide collection of data to help shippers avoid whale habitats and avoid striking and killing whales," said Brad Winney, co-founder of Conserve.IO.
In Boston Harbor, the app includes a sonic-sensing system that listens for the sound of the call of the right whale. That capability, however, is not currently envisioned beyond Boston because of the expense, Winney said.
California biologists are most concerned about protecting endangered blue whales, the largest animals on the planet. About 2,000 blue whales remain along the West coast and biologists fear they are frequent victims of maritime traffic accidents.
Some 3,500 large vessels crossing the Golden Gate must pass through one or two marine sanctuaries, said John Berge, vice president of Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.
Biologists hope that boaters who use the app along the California coast will be better able to prevent collisions with the animals.
"I don't think it's the ultimate solution, but I think it's one tool to provide a better picture of where the whales are and hopefully to develop management strategies to avoid striking," Berge said.
A whale spotted in San Francisco Bay last week nearly caused the postponement of a race for the prized America's Cup.
Five dead blue whales, one a pregnant female, washed ashore in Southern California in 2007, raising awareness about the problem, Greenpeace's Dragon said.
"We're hopeful the public will see this as a great opportunity to help steward these waters and help us protect whales," she said. "Instead of having one or two eyes on the Bay, this is a chance to bring many eyes to the water."