Sound tech hopes to keep whales from fatal collisions with ships


About 80 whales are killed by cargo ships on the West Coast of the United States each year.

However, scientists at UC Santa Barbara are hoping to curb those deaths with the help of technology. A new underwater sound system in the Santa Barbara Channel picks up on whale sounds and enables scientists to warn cargo ships that they are getting close to whale pods.

“No company wants to cruise into the Port of Los Angeles with an endangered species stuck to the front of its ships,” said Douglas McCauley , director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and associate professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Researchers examine a dead blue whale that has been struck by a ship. Photo credit: Craig Hayslip

The listening station sponsored by the Benioff Ocean Initiative is stationed 650 feet below water near the coast of Santa Cruz Island. It's able to capture whale calls as far away as 30 miles. It then transmits whale sound data by satellite to scientists onshore. 

“This is the first real-time whale detection system anywhere in the Pacific Ocean,” said McCauley. “We are well overdue for pulling this technology in.”

When whales are present, cargo ships are alerted to slow down. Reducing their speed greatly reduces the risk of striking and killing the animals.

The Benioff Ocean Initiative
at UC Santa Barbara is sponsoring the $1.5 million project. It connects an underwater device to a buoy floating above, which transmits whale sound data (via satellite) to scientists onshore . Photo credit: Benioff Ocean Initiative