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Monitoring whales from space


Whale strandings are to be monitored from space via satellites. Traditionally monitored by boats and planes, whale strandings take many weeks to record and numbers are often vastly underestimated. Being able to detect whale strandings more accurately, say scientists, will better inform the conservation community of an ongoing — often puzzling — phenomenon.

When the carcasses of 343 sei whales were discovered beached in Patagonia, Chile, in 2015, a huge aerial survey was conducted. “But it's possible some of the carcasses got washed back out to sea in storms and simply weren't counted,” Dr Jennifer Jackson, a whale expert with the British Antarctic Survey, told the BBC. “The 343 number was only ever a best estimate.” Indeed, in one satellite image examined by researchers, the whale count was almost double.

Satellite technology can produce 30cm resolution, allowing scientists and conservationists to monitor any beach in the world. This is particularly helpful when it comes to surveying the remote coastlines of Tasmania, New Zealand, the Falkland Islands and South American Patagonia where whale strandings are particularly common. Satellite monitoring will also allow rescuers to get to the scene of a stranding more quickly and provide greater insight to the cause.

And it’s not just whales that can be monitored. Satellites provide the opportunity for scientists to survey many other species living in remote, impenetrable locations. Such insights will give researchers real-time information, not only about the condition of an individual species, but also their ecosystem. “Whales are a really important indicator of ecosystem health,” said Jackson. “By being able to gather information on the grandest scales afforded by satellite imagery, we can understand something more generally about the oceans’ health and that’s really important for marine conservation.”

ABOVE Right whale mother and calf​

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