Mariners can track presence of whales with a phone app

As whale watching season approaches, more boat captains are finding that a new smartphone app is better at helping them avoid hitting whales than outdated equipment.

Michael Sweet/Exploring
A majestic Humpback Whales that migrated from Alaska floats in the warm waters off of Maui, Hawaii. A new app called Whale Alert provides a real-time display of the ocean and the position of the mariner's ship, along with information about where whales have been seen or heard recently.

With summer whale watching season fast approaching, conservation advocates and government agencies who want to protect whales say a mobile app designed to help mariners steer clear of the animals is helping keep them alive.

The Whale Alert app provides a real-time display of the ocean and the position of the mariner's ship, along with information about where whales have been seen or heard recently. It also provides information on speed restrictions and restricted areas, and recommends routes shippers can take to avoid endangered species such as the blue whale and the North Atlantic right whale.

New England whale watching companies are gearing up for summer, and more than a quarter of the entire North Atlantic right whale population visited Cape Cod Bay this season. That means conditions are perfect to get more mariners and the public on board with protecting whales, said Patrick Ramage, whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Andy Hammond, of Martha's Vineyard, is one such mariner. He has used the tool aboard pilot boats to avoid whales in Boston Harbor.

"It's all about making sure people understand the regulations and how to operate in certain areas," Hammond said. "It takes the guesswork out."

Collisions with high speed ships are one of the leading causes of death for some species of whales, and many mariners often try to navigate around them using outdated equipment.

Despite the legend spawned by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," it is ships that sink whales, and not the other way around as Lucy Schouten reported for The Christian Science Monitor,

Scientists were skeptical of the ramming theory because the forehead [of sperm whales] contains some fairly delicate structures. For example, scientists already knew the forehead's echolocation abilities helped whales navigate during deep dives. They also had no reliable record of whales ramming anything, much less a wooden ship.

IFAW collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the app, which provides information on both US coasts. Alaskan cruise ships began using it this month.

Ramage said more than 33,000 users have downloaded the app, which first came out four years ago, and recent changes – such as giving civilians the ability to report whale sightings – have made it more popular.

"It is literally a situation where the sort of fog of incomplete data or outmoded equipment can be lifted for the mariner," Ramage said.

The app shows a broad area where the whales are located as opposed to a pinpointed location because of concerns about the possibility of recreational boaters attempting to get close to the animal, Ramage said.

The app was funded by donations to IFAW, which raised more than $500,000, he said. It's free and can be downloaded by anyone with an iPhone or Android.

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