New Technology That Can Detect Sperm Whale’s Location and Protect It From Passing Ships


Sea creatures often swim in the deep, not worrying too much about the activities that take place on the water’s surface. There are some who have to emerge out of the ocean in order to take in oxygen. Whales and dolphins need to do this from time to time.

When these mammals emerge from the deep, they’re often spotted by passing ships from afar. Unfortunately, there are cases when these creatures accidentally get struck the large ships, causing them harm. Now, scientists may have found a way to protect them.

Greek scientists have managed to develop a technology that’s designed to track and point out the exact location of a sperm whale as long as it is located within 40 meters of its large body that’s averages around 16 its length. It does so by tracking the whale’s clicks.

The scientists have worked on observing these whales in the ocean, and in the process, they came upon this interesting phenomenon that paved the way for them to create a system that’s able to track their position in vertical and horizontal marine spaces.

This is an important breakthrough because ship strikes are common when it comes to these creatures. In fact, this is responsible for half of all deaths of sperm whales in the Mediterranean sea. While these types of whales can be found in other areas, the ones here are a genetically distinct population. And because of the accidents, they have become endangered.

Emmanuel Skarsoulis is a research director of Greece’s Foundation for Research and Technology–Hellas. He had been aware of what’s been happening. So, he and his colleagues went out to reduce these ship strikes by creating an early warning system. The system works by alerting these passing vessels if there’s a chance that they may intercept a surfacing whale and hit it.

As a way to save the whale’s life, they came up with “System for the Avoidance of Ship-Strikes with Endangered Whales” (SAvEWhales). The system is made up of a trio of buoys that float right on top of the Hellenic Trench in the Mediterranean. This is the area where whales are often found diving deep as they look for food.

Right below the buoys, around 100 meters below it suspended by a rope are hydrophones. These are able to catch the clicking sound the whale’s use as they search for their prey. The phones work on the volume of these sounds. It also monitors time it takes for a click to reach each of the three hydrophones. With the design, Skarsoulis and his team had designed a technology with the ability to estimate how far away the click came from.

As they were hard at work designing this software, Skarsoulis and his team also came to discover that the clicks heard also constantly echoed off something else. As they studied it, they realized that the other sound was the water’s surface.

As the researchers harnessed the characteristics of the echo, they were able to get both the vertical and horizontal bearing of the click. This was able to enhance the positioning estimations of the technology to as far as 900 meters depth, or 10 kilometers in radius from the buoys that it came from.

It must be noted that SAvEWhales isn’t foolproof. It is still unable to differentiate between individual whales that swim together. It also can’t pick up the location of singing whales such as the Mediterranean fin whale. This is also important because the species is also endangered and are at risk of ship strikes. Lastly, the buoys can be affected by extreme weather conditions that happen in the area.

Still, while the researchers have yet to fully understand it doesn’t mean that it can’t come in useful even at this time. This passive whale detection system is substantially inexpensive. More importantly, it can still help protect at least one of the endangered whale species from ship strikes as these massive transportations travel from one area to the next, many of which are frequented by whales. The Hellenic  Trench is one such place, and while the system can still improve, having these in the ocean can already make a big difference.


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