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Whale-watching from space totally works

Researchers enlist a satellite in the quest to take a count of endangered southern right whales. Eerie pictures result.

Whale satellite imagery
This is what whales look like to a satellite, while the upper right image is an aerial photo.
British Antarctic Survey/DigitalGlobe

Whales are big, but they're relatively small compared with the great expanses of the oceans. Counting and tracking them can be a challenge, so researchers are turning to eyes in the sky for assistance. A team from the British Antarctic Survey tapped into data from the WorldView-2 satellite, a commercial satellite owned by imaging company DigitalGlobe.

Extremely high-resolution imagery was run through processing software to help detect whales in the Golfo Nuevo off the coast of Argentina. The process identified 55 whales, while there were 23 other probable sightings.

The study, titled "Whales from Space: Counting Southern Right Whales by Satellite," was published this month in journal PLOS-One.

The study acts as a proof of concept for what scientists hope will be a much more accurate method of tracking whales than the standard methods of flying over a body of water or counting from land-based vantage points. The southern right whales were chosen partly due to a recent spate of deaths in their breeding grounds, a major concern for an already fragile population.

Researchers have attempted whale counts via satellite in the past without much success. Only more recently has the quality of the imagery gotten to the point where it's now a viable method. The WorldView-2 satellite not only detects whales at the surface, but also ones that are below the surface, though the details get fuzzier and more difficult to identify the deeper the imaging gets.

"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," says lead author Peter Fretwell.

(Via Science Today)