Fortunately, it’s not very often that ships collide with whales in the Pacific Northwest. But when it does, it’s upsetting and tragic, and the whale probably dies. Three separate teams have developed smartphone-based systems that can alert commercial mariners to look out, slow down or change course when whales have been spotted nearby. A recent trip on a large container ship showed that real-time whale alerts are still a work in progress.
Puget Sound pilot Jostein Kalvoy was tasked with guiding the 1,000-foot container ship SM Yantian out to sea from the Port of Seattle on a Friday evening in late October. The ship’s bridge, 15 stories above the waterline, vibrated with the crackle of radios and clipped conversations in the crew’s native languages of Korean and Indonesian as Kalvoy climbed aboard.
Captain Kalvoy soon had a lot to juggle: coordinating the tugs, ordering the right amount of engine power, directing the helmsman, and watching the cross traffic of ferries and fishing boats. Also, if that wasn’t enough, an app on his smartphone told him that endangered southern resident killer whales had been spotted in shipping lanes an hour north earlier in the day.
“If you see them, or you see a report, you want to make sure you’re alert and away from them, out of their way,” Kalvoy said.
It is already dark when the boat passes Whidbey Island at reduced speed, this being the area where the endangered killer whales have been seen before.
“I’m taking a look at WRAS, the Whale Report Alert System app,” Kalvoy explained as he consulted a digital map on his smartphone specially designed for commercial boaters. “I don’t see anything, so I’ll switch to a second app.”
This second application was another proprietary map of whale locations. It was based on the latest sightings by commercial whale watching captains. The trade group Pacific Whale Watch Association allows Puget Sound pilots and state ferry captains to use the PWWA app for free.
“We see there was a sighting this morning, about 10 hours ago,” Kalvoy noted as he scanned the PWWA app for icons depicting whales near his boat’s real-time location.
But the pressing question remained, where were the endangered killer whales at this time? At this point, I pulled out a third app called simply Whale Alert. It collects and shares sightings from the general public, primarily those now submitted to the non-profit Orca Network. Tonight, the third app had the most recent report. It showed that the orca pod, 25 orcas strong, had moved into Saratoga Pass, well outside the shipping channel.
“Safer for them, safer for us,” Kalvoy observed with some satisfaction. But the ship’s pilot added that he cannot do his job and simultaneously cross three different whaling apps.
“You can easily lose situational awareness once you’re in the deep,” Kalvoy said. “Suddenly the minutes fly by and your focus becomes reporting on whales and not sailing. That’s not really what we want.”
Where things get sticky
“One of our frustrations is that there has to be an easier way. It shouldn’t matter where the information comes from, as long as you get it,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. , in an interview a few days later.
Most days, his group’s technology shows the highest number of recent whale sightings. Gless said the PWWA has been asked several times to share this data with WRAS, the separate and restricted application for commercial vessel captains. Gless insists on reciprocity: if we give you our observations, we want yours. The answer from the British Columbia-based operator of WRAS, the conservation group Ocean Wise, is no dice.
“The question there is, of course, that because we are professional whale-watching vessels, if we know where the whales are, we’re probably going to look at those whales, which is a true statement,” Gless explained.
Gless said his group is also wary of sharing the PWWA’s valuable data because of uncertainty about how it might be used beyond whale notifications to masters of large ships and ferries.
“There are still a lot of question marks,” Gless said, such as whether regulators or parties opposed to ship-based whale watching could get their hands on location records.
Gless said professional whale watchers are required as a condition of tourist boat licensing to report sightings of southern resident killer whales specifically to WRAS, and operators are doing so.
The leader of a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes coastal whale watching, Donna Sandstrom, said she is sometimes “heartbroken” by how difficult it is to break through the silos that hold data from ‘real-time whale sightings.
“Our main concern is that the big boat operators and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Enforcement have the data they need as soon as possible,” said Sandstrom, executive director of The Whale Trail.
Sandstrom, as well as another deeply invested figure, Orcasound’s Scott Veirs, said one way people from all walks of life can contribute to the survival of endangered Pacific Northwest killer whales is to report whale sightings to your local sighting network.
Another person who has been trying to get all the involved industries and humans to work together is Seattle’s Rachel Aronson. He leads the government-funded Quiet Sound project to reduce the impact of ships on orcas.
“My long-term dream, in about 3 to 5 years, I would love to see us have a very active community of human users, hydrophones that are actively reporting their whale sightings,” Aronson said. “And then we want to start testing infrared cameras that can detect whales from the surface when they’re not singing underwater and in the dark and rain when there are fewer humans watching over them.”
This longer-term vision requires artificial intelligence to process the sources from underwater microphones and infrared cameras, the latter perhaps mounted on top of lighthouses. In the short term, Aronson foresees a major improvement from a new data sharing agreement. He said programmers behind the scenes are working to automatically import sightings from shore-based observers from the Orca Network (now available through the Whale Alert app) into the restricted app for commercial vessel captains.
Ship strikes kill a variety of Northwestern whales
The risk of deadly boat strikes becomes all too real at least a couple of times each year in the waters of the Salish Sea. Last month, a dead minke whale was found floating near Orcas Island with severe bruising and broken vertebrae and ribs, likely from being hit by a boat, according to the West Coast Marine Mammal Network .
Last March, a rare fin whale that had previously visited Puget Sound was found dead near Pender Harbour, northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia. A necropsy by Fisheries and Oceans Canada concluded that the 40-foot whale died of blunt force trauma, likely from being hit by a ship.
In 2017, a fin whale was discovered impaled on the bow of a cargo ship in Tacoma’s Home Bay. The recently killed whale was probably struck a little earlier during the inbound voyage, perhaps in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In the summer of 2021, boaters found the carcass of a humpback whale floating on Vancouver Island near Swiftsure Bank with deep lacerations consistent with injuries from a large ship’s propeller. Car ferries collided with young humpback whales near Mukilteo, Washington, in the spring of 2020, and near ferry terminals in Seattle and Tsawwassen, British Columbia in the spring of 2019, likely killing the whales in each case though the bodies sank and disappeared before it could be examined. Washington State Ferries and BC Ferries were early adopters of the WRAS application in the Pacific Northwest.
The Canadian Coast Guard recently established what it called a “first-of-its-kind marine mammal desk” at its vessel traffic center in Sidney, BC. sends alerts to specific ships as needed. Several whale advocates have suggested that the U.S. Coast Guard establish a similar whaling desk at its maritime traffic coordination center in Seattle, but the Coast Guard is not biting management to do it from the other Washington.