The Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) is a baleen whale, one of three species classified as the Right Whale belonging to the genus Eubalaena (Coast of South Africa)

AI system that keeps ships from hitting whales launches off California

Image credit: Holger Karius |

Following the ship strike that killed Fran – a famous California whale – scientists have deployed Whale Safe, to prevent whale-ship collisions off the San Francisco Bay Area Region.

Whale Safe, a technology-based mapping and analysis system to help prevent whale-ship collisions, is scheduled to launch off to the San Francisco Bay Area Region, after finding success in southern California. 

The announcement comes on the heels of the news of the death of Fran, the most photographed whale in California, caused by a ship strike.

Whale Safe has been developed by the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, in collaboration with the Marine Mammal Center, to help detect endangered whale presence and track ship speeds to provide data to the shipping industry, public and government to reduce preventable whale deaths. 

"Whale Safe is on a mission to help save the incredible mammals who have ruled the oceans for tens of millions of years,” said Marc Benioff, chair and co-CEO of Salesforce.

“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. This is a triple win for the planet – we save the whales, fight climate change, and promote community health by cutting air pollution. We need more solutions like this coming out of alliances between science and business."

WhaleSafe integrates acoustic and visual whale detections with model predictions to provide mariners with the latest information on whale presence. It also uses Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to track ship speeds and calculate cooperation rates with voluntary speed limits that are put in place by NOAA and the Coast Guard to protect whales. 

In addition to providing an immediate benefit for monitoring ship speeds, the data will also be saved and analysed by the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory and the Marine Mammal Center to help inform additional preventative safety recommendations.

The first Whale Safe system has been deployed in the Santa Barbara Channel near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and will now be deployed off the San Francisco coastline. 

“Whale-vessel collisions are a global concern, so when addressing the problem and building the Whale Safe system we wanted it to be a blueprint to allow for replication and expansion into other regions. We are excited to expand the technology and expertise to the San Francisco Bay region where ship collisions are of high concern for endangered whales,” said Callie Steffen, Whale Safe project lead at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory.

Whales play vital roles in maintaining healthy underwater ecosystems. However, intensive whaling over the past 200 years has brought many populations to the brink of extinction. Although hunting has decreased dramatically over the last century, another danger threatens whales – cargo ships.

Blue, fin, humpback and grey whales are vulnerable to ship strikes as they migrate and feed in areas that overlap shipping lanes and routes. Scientists estimate that over 80 endangered whales are killed by ship strikes off the US West Coast each year.

“Whale Safe utilises best-in-class technology with best-practice conservation strategies to create a solution to reduce risk to whales," said Dr Jeff Boehm, chief external relations officer of The Marine Mammal Center. "Whales and ships must coexist in an increasingly busy ocean. Whale Safe San Francisco provides data insights to empower decisions that protect whales while supporting efficient maritime commerce.” 

The number of known whale deaths from ship strikes on the West Coast has been growing over the last decade and the ones we see are only a fraction of the total number that die each year. In fact, scientists estimate the carcass detection rate is only 5-17 per cent, so the actual number of dead whales is much higher than the number observed and recorded.

Whale Safe leverages an AI-enabled acoustic monitoring system, big data models and direct whale sightings recorded by trained observers and citizen scientists.

The three data streams are validated, compiled and disseminated in an easily interpreted 'Whale Presence Rating' ranging from low to very high whale activity. Additionally, shipping report cards are created to display a ship or company’s cooperation with voluntary vessel speed reduction zones implemented by NOAA, EPA and the US Coast Guard. This gives the captains of large vessels the data they need to know when to slow down, which is the most effective measure to drastically reduce the number of deadly ship strikes.

“We look forward to the day that ‘whale safe’ becomes as ubiquitous as ‘fair trade'," said Dr Boehm. "We believe consumers care about having retailers transport their products with shipping companies who achieve our shared conservation goal of ensuring whale safe waters.” 

Following Whale Safe Santa Barbara and the new San Francisco expansion, the project leaders are said to be looking at expanding the use of this tool in other locations and key ports around the world, such as Sri Lanka, Chile, Greece and the Canary Islands. 

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