Oregon Coast Science: Counting Whales from Space Via Satellite Could Be Useful Here
(Cambridge, England) – Scientists working out of England and Antarctica have developed a new means of counting whales from orbit above the Earth via satellites that utilize a certain spectrum of light. The applications of this could assist scientists on the Oregon coast as well as the rest of the world. (All satellite images courtesy BAS).
The group is called the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), based out of Cambridge, England. Researchers utilized several visual technologies of orbiting satellites, including Very High Resolution (VHR) images from the WorldView-2, launched in October 2009,
Several automated means were used in counting whales from space, but the most accurate came from one aspect of WorldView2 that uses light from the far blue end of the spectrum. This penetrates more deeply into the ocean can see more whales. The technique found 89 percent of the probable whales identified in a manual count. This is a semi automated technique that needs some user input to identify the best threshold.
Using this method, BAS scientists got a good look at breeding behaviors of whales off the Argentine coast.
Peter Fretwell from BAS is the lead author of the paper that was published recently in the journal PLoS ONE. He said marine mammals are extremely difficult to count on a large scale. Traditional methods, such as counting them from platforms or by land, can be costly and inefficient.
“This is a proof of concept study that proves whales can be identified and counted by satellite,” Fretwell said. “Whale populations have always been difficult to assess; traditional means of counting them are localized, expensive and lack accuracy. The ability to count whales automatically, over large areas in a cost effective way will be of great benefit to conservation efforts for this and potentially other whale species.”
What can the uses be here on the Oregon coast?
While much tagging of whales is done by the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport and there are scores of volunteers keeping human eyes trained on the Pacific from land, one Oregon coast official sees many possible applications. Charlie Plybon, head of the Surfrider Foundation in Oregon, said scientists here could do more than just count the migrating or resident whales.
“Where they were moving, where they were spending time feeding,” Plybon said. “But I think especially with respect to some technologies, as in how whales behave around wave energy sites. There's already a lot of research going on about EMF or hydrophones, how what's emitted from them affects the whales.”
Plybon added some areas around the Oregon coast are too remote to see whales very clearly or accurately from shore as well.
Future satellite platforms will provide even high quality imagery and Worldview3 is planned to be launched this year. This will allow for greater confidence in identifying whales and differentiating mother and calf pairs. Such technological advancements may also allow scientists to apply this method to other whale species.
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