Home  »  Listen up: By eavesdropping on the oceans, scientists are working to protect Canada’s whales

Listen up: By eavesdropping on the oceans, scientists are working to protect Canada’s whales

By using AI and drone boats to track whale populations, the hope is it will be easier to keep them safe.

For tens of millions of years, humpback whales have built sonatas out of whistles, clicks and groans. They combine short sounds into phrases, weave phrases into themes and cap off complex sections with what’s essentially a rhyme. (The theory goes that these rhymes help with memorization, since one tune can last as long as half an hour.) But humpbacks aren’t just gifted composers — they’re masters of the catchy remix. A migrating pod from French Polynesia sampled entire themes from the Australian humpbacks they passed in the Pacific Ocean; Ecuadorian whales then shamelessly lifted those riffs for their own song. Researchers think that variations on a single hit can spread all the way around the Southern Hemisphere.

Whales communicate for all sorts of reasons. Male humpbacks hope their mesmerizing vocals will attract a mate. Sperm whales click and collect their food using echolocation. Blue whales croon at night when they’re busy foraging in summer months, but when they migrate south in the winter they sing during the day. But communication underwater requires that whales can actually hear, and human-generated noise in the ocean has made that more and more challenging.

With globalization, demand for container ships has soared (prices have increased 300 percent in the past two decades). These vessels create a racket and tons of greenhouse gases — and since sound travels further in warmer waters, climate change makes oceans louder still. Military sonar and offshore seismic surveys also contribute to the din. “Imagine you’re at an incredibly loud concert. It doesn’t matter if you yell to your friends — they can’t hear you,” says Sarah Fortune, the Canadian Wildlife Federation Chair in Large Whale Conservation at Dalhousie University. “At some point, it doesn’t make any sense to try to communicate.” That has consequences for feeding, reproduction, stress levels and energy output: Scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) found beluga whales will veer 50 kilometres off course just to avoid a loud ship.

And noise is hardly the only threat. As climate change raises ocean temperatures, alters currents and increases salinity, both the quality and quantity of whales’ food is dropping. (Populations of krill, a whale-diet staple, have plummeted by 80 percent since the 1970s.) “Maybe, in response, whales spend more time feeding to get the energy they need,” Fortune says. “Another possibility is they disperse to find new foraging grounds.” And that has knock-on effects: 12 right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in just three months in 2017, struck by ships or tangled up in fishing gear after they moved from the Bay of Fundy to feed. Figuring out where they are, where they might go in the future and protecting the areas around them becomes a bit of a scramble, Fortune says. “We have to shift our research from areas where we had long-term studies and really good baseline information to somewhere new.”

Historically, to get that data, researchers relied on the most traditional of tools: human eyes. People would look from the bow of a boat, or peer out the window of a plane, or, more recently, scan thousands of aerial images on a computer screen. “You zoom in on an area and then you just do this lawnmower pattern on it, left to right, to see what’s in the image,” says Emily Charry Tissier, who spent untold hours scouring images six years ago working on an Arctic Species Grant for WWF-Canada. If the water was calm and crystal clear, it could take 30 seconds to scan a high-resolution image for whales; if the conditions were choppier, it might take 45 minutes. “We needed techniques that would help us get through this data faster, because our oceans are changing so rapidly, and all the things we said would happen in 10 years are happening yesterday.”

To learn more about how technology can help preserve endangered species, listen to the latest episode of the MaRS podcast Solve for X: Innovations to Change the World.


Up to speed

Since you can’t protect what you can’t monitor, Canadian technology is stepping in to fill those information gaps. In 2018, Charry Tissier co-founded Whale Seeker, a Montreal-based startup that feeds a whole mess of aerial and satellite images into an AI system to detect marine mammals like whales, seals and polar bears. “The idea is to maximize what computers are good at, which is going through huge amounts of data very quickly, and what humans are good at, which is precision and judgment calls,” she says. A team of biologists and ecologists helps finesse the algorithm, so it doesn’t trade accuracy for speed. As a result, Whale Seeker has found that its platform isn’t just 97 percent faster than manual methods, it also outperforms other methods by identifying 112 percent more whales.

That has implications for everything from conservation efforts to collision prevention to industry decisions around where to fish or run shipping lanes. This past summer, Whale Seeker started working with Transport Canada to detect right whales in real time in the St. Lawrence. It’s a challenge to build policy around a moving target, but Charry Tissier hopes that fast, high-quality data will help the government minimize whale strikes and better manage fishing zones and shipping lanes. “Maybe a two-week closure becomes a one-day shutdown if the animal is just passing through,” she says. But more importantly, diverting cruise ships and ferries and cargo freighters means “they aren’t leaving roadkill in their wake.”


Observe and report

Technology can also help combat illegal fishing, which the DFO warned in 2023 was “rampant” in some B.C. waters designated to protect finfish. Those activities affect not just endangered populations of rockfish and sharks but marine mammals like whales, which get caught in fishing ropes and traps. Victoria-based Open Ocean Robotics builds solar-powered, autonomous (and extremely quiet!) boats that can traverse the ocean for months at a time, collecting data and providing analytics that allow researchers, government and companies to operate better. “We’re active in monitoring marine-protected regions against illegal fishing,” says CEO and founder Julie Angus. Its boats are able to patrol these remote areas and provide line of sight of what’s actually happening.

Open Ocean’s vessels are highly maneuverable: They can go from shallow waters to the middle of the ocean; they can linger in one spot, stay on a set course or take off in pursuit of an animal. AI systems onboard can even identify different whale species based on their sounds, distinguishing between a southern resident killer whale and a humpback. “Because we can stay out there for extended periods of time, we can observe more of our oceans, and that increased awareness is really important in protecting our marine mammal populations,” Angus says. As she points out, 80 percent of our oceans remain unexplored in detail. The information her boats collect sheds light on how climate change, pollution, overfishing and oil spills have transformed those waters, and supports practices that promote sustainability. “We want to help create a digital ocean,” she says, “where we can collect this data continuously in difficult places, and help solve some of the very pressing problems that oceans face.”

Back in 2006, crammed into a rowboat alongside her husband, Colin, Angus spent five months crossing the Atlantic Ocean, becoming the first woman to row from mainland to mainland. Mahi Mahi trailed their vessel for thousands of kilometres; pods of spinner dolphins showed off with aerial flips. The whales she spotted, maybe 20 of them, proved a little less interactive: “They would slip below the surface and just slide under our boat, and off they would be,” she says. But then, a little later, they’d appear way off in the distance, and Angus could hear them spouting before they submerged again to refine their latest song.

Nearly two decades on, her technology is part of a Canadian-made solution to ensure those whales keep cranking out the hits.

To hear more insights on how the spread of disease is changing, listen to the latest episode of the MaRS podcast Solve for X: Innovations to Change the World.

Image source: iStock

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