New tech hopes to stop whale deaths by ship strikes off SF coast

Marine Mammal Center Director of Veterinary Science Dr. Pádraig J. Duignan stands on top of a beached grey whale as scientists and volunteers with the Marine Mammal Center and California Academy of Sciences perform a necropsy on the whale on April 23, 2019 in Tiburon, California.
Marine Mammal Center Director of Veterinary Science Dr. Pádraig J. Duignan stands on top of a beached grey whale as scientists and volunteers with the Marine Mammal Center and California Academy of Sciences perform a necropsy on the whale on April 23, 2019 in Tiburon, California. Photo credit Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – Following the death of California's most famous whale, the Bay Area has introduced a tool intended to protect endangered whales from cargo ship strikes.

"Whale Safe" is a mapping and analysis tool designed to prevent fatal collisions with whales by letting ships know when the animals are nearby.

In August, California's most photographed whale, Fran, washed up on Manhattan Beach in Half Moon Bay. A necropsy concluded that the 49-foot humpback whale had most likely died from blunt force trauma that included extensive bruising to the chest area, a fractured vertebra and a dislocated skull, according to a statement from The Marine Mammal Center.

The high profile ship strike was particularly upsetting as the Bay Area has seen multiple whales die from cargo ships in the past year. According to Whale Safe, 2018, 2019 and 2021 were the worst years on record for whale-ship collisions off the West Coast.

Whale Safe is working to change this trend with first of its kind technology. It uses a mix of acoustic buoys, whale detection forecasting, tried and true human sightings and artificial intelligence to cut down on ship strikes.

However, for it to work, cargo ships need to slow down, Maria Brown, Superintendent at Greater Farallones, told KCBS Radio.

"Some shipping companies have done a tremendous job, but other shipping companies haven't done a very good job of cooperating," she explained.

Ships that slow to 10 knots in areas with high whale presence significantly reduce the danger to whales, Whale Safe research showed.

According to Brown, ships have been about 60% compliant in reducing their speed when whales are present. "If we can get the ships to slow down to the 90th percentile we'll get halfway to our goal," she said. Brown hopes Whale Safe will be the key to that goal.

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