The Santa Barbara Channel is a hot spot for ships hitting whales. Three endangered whale species (humpback, blue, and fin) come to the area to feed between May and November. Couple that with international shipping lanes squeezed between the mainland and the Channel Islands, and things can get bloody.
“We have this immense overlap of endangered whales in a business ocean highway, going right through their feeding grounds,” says Callie Steffen, a scientist from UC Santa Barbara's Benioff Ocean Initiative. She’s leading a program called Whale Safe, which aims to cut down on ship-whale strikes.
The Whale Safe program, which launched in 2019, works in three parts. First, an acoustic monitoring system uses underwater microphones to detect whales. Second, Benioff’s “dynamic blue whale habitat model” uses data to predict where the whales will be. Third, the program relies on whale sightings data that comes from trained observers and citizen scientists aboard whale-watching ships.
The program compiles all the data together to make what they call “the whale presence rating,” which goes from low to very high ratings. Think of it like a Smokey the Bear fire rating, but for whales.
That data is available through the website, email alerts, and automated Twitter feed. Shipping companies can easily pull the data into their communications and slow down when the “whale presence rating” is high.
Steffen says today, roughly 55% of all vessels moving through the channel slow down, a huge improvement compared to when the program began.
“But it’s still not enough. We’d like to see that number closer to 100,” she says.
Scientists estimate that 80 endangered whales are killed on the U.S. West Coast by ships every year. Those estimates are most likely lower than the actual number of whale deaths because many sink to the bottom of the ocean and go undetected.