When Hot Breath is a Good Thing: Heat-Seeking Tech Could Save Whales

When ships collide with whales, the whale usually loses. Now, a new technology could reduce the danger.

(Photo: Cordier Sylvain/Getty Images)

Apr 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Can a whale’s breath help save its life? Scientists in New Zealand think so.

If ships were equipped with infrared thermal imaging, they could possibly detect whales in time to avoid striking the animals.

New data collected by Martin Stanley and his team at New Zealand’s Ocean Life Survey shows that heat emitted from Bryde’s whale blowholes could be used to warn commercial vessels that whales are in the area and limit collisions in the Hauraki Gulf, which is off the coast of Auckland.

“The technology could be suited to all forms of shipping, though large commercial vessels would achieve optimum performance in terms of distance detection,” Stanley said in an email.

Whales have the same body temperature as humans, and their exhaled breath retains some of that heat. Cameras equipped with thermal imaging can survey the ocean’s surface and highlight heat from surfacing whales.

A dead whale is seen hooked on the bow of a cargo ship. (Photo: Boris Horvat/Getty Images)

Using thermal imaging to detect whales is not new. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the technology to locate and count migrating gray whales. And a study in polar waters showed that infrared detection of whale blows can be used to halt dangerous noisemaking activities—such as pile driving and air gun blasting—when whales are present.

“That study proved that thermal detection of at least a whale blow was indeed possible in the cold waters and air of the polar regions,” Stanley said. “I then approached Ports of Auckland and set out…to test whether we could achieve whale detection of both blows and bodies in real time in the warmer temperate waters of the Hauraki Gulf, using existing off-the-shelf equipment.”

In its own research, the team discovered it was possible to detect surfacing whales with thermal imaging day or night, in real time, and at a distance that would allow a vessel to safely make evasive maneuvers.

The full study will be published later this year, Stanley said.

A 2004 NOAA report confirmed that 292 ship strikes occurred worldwide between 1975 and 2000, though “the total number of whales struck and killed is likely to be significantly higher,” Stanley said.

Could thermal imaging help avoid ship strikes around the world?

“For environmental conditions outside of the varied range of our testing, such as very hot daytime tropical conditions in excess of what we have encountered, it would be good to undertake similar testing on a worldwide basis,” Stanley said.

But thermal imaging shouldn’t be thought of as the silver-bullet solution for ship strikes, explained Regina Asmutis-Silvia, North American executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

“These units are relying on whales detected at the surface,” she said. “That may seem like a no-brainer, but whales frequently travel and feed just below the surface but within the path of an oncoming vessel, so that could provide the operator with a false sense of security.”

Patrick Ramage, global whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, sees thermal imaging as one more useful tool in the fight to save the whales.

One quick fix? Adjusting shipping lanes when there is a high concentration of whales present. IFAW worked with scientists and the shipping industry to develop an iPhone and iPad app called Whale Alert that tells mariners where whales have been heard or sighted.

Another measure is simply to slow down when whales concentrate in an area. But as Ramage noted, Hauraki Gulf whales tend to be more dispersed.

“Using 21st-century technology may have promise for whales that suddenly pop up,” Ramage said. “But it should not be an excuse for other measures that are low-cost and already on the radar.”