The 'Whale Safe' Project Is Working To Eliminate Whale Deaths From Boating Accidents

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

The 'Whale Safe' Project Is Working To Eliminate Whale Deaths From Boating Accidents
Padraig Duignan

It’s difficult to calculate exactly how many whales are killed by collisions with ships every year because many strikes go unnoticed and unreported. But some estimates put the number as high as 20,000 per year. This spring, the SF Chronicle reported that as many as 83 endangered whales are killed by ships off the coast of California each year, citing projections from Petaluma organization Point Blue Conservation Science. As the shipping industry continues to grow and climate change forces whales into closer proximity to humans, the problem is only set to get worse.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: Simply reducing the speed of the boat gives the whales enough time to respond and escape from threats. Which is why a new initiative, born out of the University of California Santa Barbara, is beginning to supply vessels with strategic information about when and where to brake for whales.

Known as Whale Safe, the project is an offshoot of Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, which was created through a donation from SalesForce co-founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne. The concept behind the technology is relatively simple: An underwater microphone sits around 600 feet below the surface listening for whale vocalizations near the shipping lanes in the Santa Barbara Channel. That data is then combined with blue whale habitat maps and models as well as surface observations from whale watchers and scientists out on the water. All the inputs are then used to create a “whale presence rating” that’s sent out to ships indicating how likely a whale strike is in a given location.

“The best way I can describe the whale presence rating is it's almost like a Smokey the Bear fire warning, but for whales,” says Callie Steffen, the lead scientist at Whale Safe. “It's just a really easily digestible way to understand how much whale activity is happening in the Santa Barbara Channel on any given day.”

For now, the slowdowns are voluntary, but the second part of Whale Safe’s model is that it also collects data about which ships adhere to the warnings and issues public report cards for each company and the individual ships in their fleet.

The analytics are captured from each ship’s automatic identification system (AIS), which is essentially a GPS unit that large ships use to navigate and avoid collisions, says Steffen. The AIS data is obtained through Global Fishing Watch, but WhaleSafe processes the data to pull out the bits relevant to the whale zones they’re studying.

At first glance, it might seem like industry would hate this kind of oversight, but Steffen says there’s a lot of demand for these data from various stakeholders. Retailers and consumers now have a way to prove their goods are being moved in a whale-safe way, and shipping companies like it because it lets them check up on their colleagues and competition.

So far, the project appears to be working. When Whale Safe first began in 2019, only 47% of ships heeded the recommendation, but in 2020 that number jumped to 54%. Today, Steffen says 62% of ships follow the technologies recommendations.

Buoyed by the success, Whale Safe has recently set up a second operation off the coast of San Francisco. The team is also looking for a way to expand its vessel analytics software to the rest of North America. Which means report cards could soon be coming to the East Coast as well—a massive boon for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale population. All of the data will remain open-source and free to the public.

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Investments By LA Venture Firms to Women and Founders of Color Dropped in 2021

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Investments By LA Venture Firms to Women and Founders of Color Dropped in 2021
Image by Songquan Deng/ Shutterstock

According to PledgeLA’s annual report, the Los Angeles venture capital and tech scene is still very much an all-boys club.

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Minnie Ingersoll
Minnie Ingersoll is a partner at TenOneTen and host of the LA Venture podcast. Prior to TenOneTen, Minnie was the COO and co-founder of $100M+ Shift.com, an online marketplace for used cars. Minnie started her career as an early product manager at Google. Minnie studied Computer Science at Stanford and has an MBA from HBS. She recently moved back to L.A. after 20+ years in the Bay Area and is excited to be a part of the growing tech ecosystem of Southern California. In her space time, Minnie surfs baby waves and raises baby people.
Vinay Singh
courtesy of Vinay Singh

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Anthemis Group Managing Director Vinay Singh talks about empowering creators, payments in media and how being a VC is similar to being a producer.

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Meet the LA Startup Using NFTs To Auction Off Restaurant Reservations

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

Meet the LA Startup Using NFTs To Auction Off Restaurant Reservations

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