Saving the whale with thermal!

Saving the whale with thermal!

Saving the whale with thermal!

Saving the whale with thermal, the whale is possibly one of the most magnificent and awe inspiring mammals on the planet. It is difficult to comprehend their enormity, the sense of humbleness in their presence and their sheer power without seeing these impressive marine creatures with our own eyes.  Ranging in size from the largest mammal ever known on planet earth, the Blue Whale, at around 30m in length to the miniature Pygmy Sperm Whale at just 3.5m.

Whales are found throughout all the oceans and generally have a long lifespan, some over 100 years.  Whales are classified into two suborders – mysticeti which have baleen and two blowholes and odonotoceti which have teeth with just one blowhole. To fulfil their daily nutritional requirements, an adult whale needs to eat around 2%-4% of their bodyweight per day while calves during their growth period can require up to 10% of their bodyweight in krill, plankton, fish and marine species to provide all the nutrients for growth and development.  If you consider that a blue whale could weigh in the region of 144tonnes (the equivalent of 2000 men!!!) that represents a huge amount of food per day!

saving the whale with thermal
Thermal Signatures are detectable from the whales blowhole

The earth’s oceans vary in temperature throughout the expansive of the globe and during the changing seasons there can be a differing abundance of plankton, krill or edible fish species in different parts of the ocean. Due to the vast requirements for feeding each day most whale species have evolved to follow a migratory pattern to both optimise feeding grounds and ensure the best surroundings for breeding.

During migration whales have an extraordinary geographical range – the humpback whale, for example, will cover 5000km in their migratory journey.  The cold polar waters are abundant with krill and are rich feeding grounds, however newborn whales are born without the protective blubber layer which forms as the whale grows and if born in these ice cold waters would quickly freeze to death.  The growing whale gestates for a year in the mother’s womb and she will follow the migration route prior to birth to the warmer waters where she can deliver her young.

Over the past few decades the awareness of the decline in population of these magnificent mammals has increased, once found throughout the oceans in unrestricted numbers and despite remaining at the top of the food chain, 7 of the 13 great whale species are now classified as endangered or vulnerable.  Not even their size can protect them from the most dangerous species of all – the human.

But why have the whale populations diminished in size?  Commercial whaling claims around 1000 whales per year despite attempts from International Whaling Commission (IWC) member countries to prevent Iceland from continuing to hunt; they resumed hunting activity of the endangered Fin Whale in 2013.  Large  numbers of whale lives are also claimed by “accidental” deaths – despite their size and presence in the water not only do they collide with ships and become entangled in fishing nets but pollution from oil and gas mining can lead to their injury and death.  Noise and pollution from ships and industry not only causes physical damage but can damage their hearing, the knock on effect of this can be highly disruptive preventing them from following their migratory paths and feeding.

So what can be done to protect the whale?

You may be surprised to find out that thermal imaging is helping in the fight to save whales!

Fishing boats, cruise liners and trawlers can generally spot a whale in daylight and attempt to avoid collision – with the large size of the whale, collision with a boat can not only lead to damage to the whale but  there is a risk of damage to the boat and ultimately human lives.  During the darker hours detecting a whale’s presence can be almost impossible – except with the use of thermal technology.

When the whale ejects water from the blowhole is gives off a thermal signature, higher than that of the environment surrounding it, therefore this can be detected by thermal imaging technology.  The signature varies slightly between an odontocete and mysticete due to their differing anatomy but in a variety of studies has been shown to be detected by even small hand held high resolution thermal imaging technology.  Not only has thermal imaging been shown to acknowledge the thermal signature from the whale’s blow but this has been repeatedly shown to be successful at detecting the presence of whales at significant distances (up to 1-2 nautical miles in some studies*).

This discovery has led to extended research conducted into the use of thermal imagery in preventing the disruption of migratory patterns by industry or noise from oil rigs, also impacting on the whale populations.  Some authorities now request the implementation of migration measures, including the shut down or acoustic sources when marine mammals are sighted within a predefined exclusion zone.**Conducting a continuous monitoring process of scanning the surrounds of the ship with infrared thermographic detection systems allowed detection of whale blows up to 5500m. This provides a landmark advantage over visual scanning with human eyes and provides adequate time for ordering the ceasing of disruptive noise before the whales enter, for example, a 500m exclusion zone***.

Naturally there are other factors to consider such as the dive time of the whale, the water temperature and the speed of the ship monitoring the thermal signals; however this still represents a significant step in the fight to conserve whale population from further decline.

With as few as 300 North Atlantic Whales remaining and estimates of numbers anywhere from 10,000 – 90,000 of other species in our Earth’s oceans, Thermal technology is pioneering a vital step in the conservation of these magnificent mammals to inspire and capture the imagination of generations to come.



*Baldacci et al. (2005). **Wartzok D, Erbe C, Getz WM, Thomas J (2012)*** Zitterbart D, Kindermann L, Burkhardt E, Boebel O (2013)