New App Tracks Rare Whales With iPhone and iPad

Talk about the call of the wild—you can now track rare North Atlantic right whales with a new iPhone and iPad app, released today by a group of several organizations, universities, and government agencies.

The rare mammals, which ply North America’s East Coast from Nova Scotia to Florida, number only between 350 to 550 individuals and are deemed endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

North Atlantic right whales have declined mainly due to collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, according to the Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology’s Right Whale Listening Network.

Whales swim near a tanker in an undated picture. Photo courtesy SBNMS & WCNE – NOAA Fisheries Permit # 981-1707 2006

That’s why the Whale Alert app is targeted for vessel operators, who can download the app and be notified when their vessel gets near a whale. By reducing the time and effort required to alert operators of whales, the app will ideally help them avoid hitting the ocean giants.

As the Cornell listening network says on its website, “every death is a severe blow to the species’ prospects for survival.” Luckily, studies suggest that saving just two female whales a year would put the species back on stable footing.

The whales are tracked via an existing system of buoys across 55 miles (88 kilometers) of Massachusetts Bay that detect right whale sounds and transmit the information to ships. The app then draws from this buoy data to locate the whales.

(Related: “High-Tech Sound Detectors to Warn Ships of Right Whales [2008].”)

A North Atlantic right whale. Photo courtesy C. Tremblay, NOAA

I’m no vessel operator, but since the app is free, I downloaded it on my iPhone to see if I could spot any whales hanging around the coast. Sure enough the buoys notified me of four whales—each of which were designated by a whale fluke inside a yellow circle.

When you tap on the circle, a screen pops up that reads “Right Whale Detected: Voluntary Speed Reduction to 10 Knots or Less.” It was cool to know that the endangered whales were swimming out there, and to know in real-time exactly where they were.

(Watch videos on right whales and learn more about the buoy system.)

Whales seem to like the Northeast coast. In 2011 I reported on a surprising amount of whales—including North Atlantic right whales—that were heard thronging the south coast of Long Island and throughout New York Harbor (map).

Aaron Rice, science director of the the Cornell lab’s Bioacoustics Research Program, told me then that scientists were struck by the “juxtaposition of having such large charismatic animals that represent ocean biodiversity living right off of the largest city on the Atlantic coast.”

Some of the whales cruised as close as 10 miles (16 kilometers) from New York City, he said.

Acoustic recording has proven a dependable technique for tracking the mammals—especially because “it’s really hard for whales to keep their mouths shut,” Christopher Clark, also of the Cornell lab, told me in 2011.

Next I’m hoping for an app that tracks coyotes, my favorite critter and a resilient Western predator that has managed to spread throughout the entire continental United States—even New York City.

Whale Alert can be downloaded free of charge from the App store. More information on Whale Alert and the groups responsible for its development can be found at the website Whale Alert: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

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Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.

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