Whales Counted With Space Satellites

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Counting whales from a ship or a plane has always been difficult, but now scientists may have a new option: using images from space.

Using space images broadens the viewpoint — and the system is automated.

The DigitalGlobe's WorldView-2 platform uses extremely high-resolution satellite pictures and image-processing software to detect whales on or near the ocean’s surface, according to the report in the journal Plos One.

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A team of scientists from the British Antarctic Survey did a test count on southern right whales in the Golfo Nuevo on the coast of Argentina, and found that the automated system captured 89 percent of the whales spotted in a manual search of the images.

"As the resolution of the satellites increases and our image analysis improves, we should be able to monitor many more species and in other types of location," study author Peter Fretwell told the BBC. "It should be possible to do total population counts and in the future track the trajectory of those populations."

The platform can pinpoint things as small as 50 centimeters, although waves and murky water can confuse the program.

Southern right whales were chosen to test because they are slow and shallow swimmers, but it could be used to track other animals.

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"The other dimension of it is that many marine mammal researchers have been killed flying in small planes while surveying whales," Vicky Rowntree, director of the Ocean Alliance's Southern Right Whale Program who studies the Valdes whale, told the BBC. "So my great desire is to get us out of small planes circling over whales and to be able to do it remotely.

"Satellite data is wonderful."

Photo: Southern Right Whale off Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia. Credit: Paul Souders, Corbis

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