Whales from space: ecologists use satellite images of whales

Whales from space: ecologists use satellite images of whales
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Scientists have viewed and counted four different species of whales from space using satellite images of whales by the Maxar Technologies’ DigitalGlobe.

The satellite images of whales are high resolution and allow ecologists to successfully monitor whales from space. The paper has been published in Marine Mammal Science.

The satellite images of whales

The ecologists have been able to capture the highest resolution satellite images of whales so far, allowing them to observe whales from space in detail.

Hannah Cubaynes, who is the lead author of the study and a whale ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and University of Cambridge, said: “This is the most detailed imagery of whales captured by satellites to date. It’s exciting that the improved resolution (now at 30 cm) reveals characteristic features, such as flippers and flukes, which can be seen in the images for the first time.”

The reasons that ecologists have not seen whales from space in such detail before is that it is difficult to monitor whales using traditional methods. This is why satellite images of whales are being used to allow greater accessibility to observe them.

Cubaynes added:“Whales live in all oceans. Many areas are difficult to access by boats or planes, the traditional means of monitoring whales. The ability to track whales without travelling to these remote and inaccessible areas, in a cost-effective way, will be of great benefit to conservation efforts for whales.”

Why is it useful to observe whales from space?

One of the next steps in observing whales from space using satellite images of whales is studying endangered whales.

Dr Jennifer Jackson at BAS is also an author on the paper, and is due to study southern right whales in the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia in December.

Jackson commented: “This new technology could be a game-changer in helping us to find whales remotely. Critically endangered whale populations like the Chile-Peru right whale (thought to winter in Patagonia) could really benefit from this approach.”

She continued: “My project, looking at southern right whales around South Georgia, will examine if the species has made a recovery following the end of whaling. In recent years, many deaths have been seen on their nursery grounds at Peninsula Valdes. Satellite-based technology could prove very useful for measuring trends in whale populations such as these southern right whales, in future.”

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