Say goodbye to whale watching as satellite imagery paves a new way to count the mammals

Grey whales spotted off the coast of Mexico. Credit: Digital Globe

Scientists have used detailed high-resolution satellite images to detect, count and describe four different species of whales.

State of the art technology provided by Maxar Technologies’ DigitalGlobe has been heralded as a big step towards developing a cost-effective method to study whales in remote and inaccessible places.

It will help scientists to monitor population changes and understand their behaviour.

The imagery has helped whale conservation bodies identify 10 key inaccessible whale populations.

Hannah Cubaynes, a whale ecologist at British Antarctic Survey said: “This is the most detailed imagery of whales captured by satellites to date. It’s exciting that the improved resolution (now at 30 cm) reveals characteristic features, such as flippers and flukes, which can be seen in the images for the first time.

“Whales live in all oceans. Many areas are difficult to access by boats or planes, the traditional means of monitoring whales. The ability to track whales without travelling to these remote and inaccessible areas, in a cost-effective way, will be of great benefit to conservation efforts for whales.”

The study also shows some species are easier to identify by satellite.

A humpback whale dives while swimming in the Nuup Kangerlua Fjord in Greenland. Credit: AP

Fin and grey whales are the easiest to identify due to their body colouration, which contrasts with surrounding water. Humpback whales and southern right whales are more difficult to detect as they are a similar colour to their environment.

In particular, the acrobatic behaviour of humpback whales makes them harder to see as they splash about so much and so their body shape is often obscured.