Back in the day, whale watching meant grabbing your binoculars and fanny pack before hopping into a chartered boat with fellow sea mammal aficionados. Today, you can do so from the comfort of your desk.
Last week, Earth science techies from GeoEngineers leaked a stunning map showing the swimming paths of a variety of whale species navigating around the Hawaiian Islands. Nearly 200 have been tagged with satellite trackers over the past seven years, and tracking their routes will help researchers determine which habitats are most critical to preserve.
The map doesn’t show all the whales swimming in real time, explains Dr. Robin Baird, a biologist with Washington state’s Cascadia Research Collective. The data used to create the map largely relies on archival information–old signals from whale trackers that have since fallen off. The satellite tags, about the size of nine-volt batteries, only last a couple of months at most anyway.
It’s something of an ordeal to attach those tags to whales in the first place. For the past 15 years, Baird has chartered boats to go out early in the morning with a sharp-shooting partner who uses an air rifle to dispatch the tags onto whales’ dorsal fins. Together, they’ve tagged beaked whales, sperm whales, killer whales, false killer whales, pilot whales, and bottlenose dolphins.
“I personally have only ever tagged one pilot whale,” he says.
Once the tags are attached to the whales, they transmit data roughly once every hour, when the animals surface. This helps researchers learn and communicate a number of things, Baird explains. For one, whale tracking could help the fishing industry avoid hooking endangered species. When whales and people hunt tuna, mahi mahi, and swordfish at the same time, whales are likely to get snagged by a line. If researchers learn more about whale swimming patterns, they might be able to advise the fishing industry on how to negotiate catches in places where whales don’t typically hang out.
Baird and his team are also investigating how submarine commander training courses can affect the sea-faring mammals. While the three-day courses are mandatory for certain types of Navy expertise, no one’s quite sure how the heavy use of sonar underwater during these periods impacts whales.
It’s an ongoing project, but the map was leaked somewhat unintentionally. “It was accidentally launched because a couple of the folks who were geo-engineers posted on Facebook,” Baird says. “It’s a work in progress.”