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Tracking endangered whales? There's an app for that

An endangered North American Right Whale breaching (Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources/ NOAA)

A collaboration of several universities, organizations, and government agencies recently launched an app, available for iPhone and iPad, that enables users to track rare North Atlantic right whales.

There are an estimated 350 - 550 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and the population is deemed endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The whales live in the waters off North America's east coast, from Nova Scotia south to Florida. Their numbers were decimated by nineteenth century whaling, but more recently the whales are threatened by collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.

The new Whale Alert app was designed with vessel operators in mind. Anyone can download the app for free and be notified when their vessel gets close to a whale. Whales are indicated on the screen by a whale fluke inside a yellow circle. When you tap on the circle, a message pops up that reads "Right Whale Detected: Voluntary Speed Reduction to 10 Knots or Less.\" The hope is that the app will help decrease collisions by reducing the time and effort required to alert vessel operators to the presence of nearby whales.

The whales are tracked by an existing system of buoys across 55 miles of Massachusetts Bay. The buoys pick up right whale sounds and transmit the information to ships. The app works by using this data to locate whales in real time.

With such a small population, every right whale is important for the species' survival. Studies suggest saving just two females a year might be enough to put the right whale population back on stable footing. This app is an easy way for vessel operators to be aware of the whales in their midst and reduce the risk of ship and whale collisions.

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An endangered North American Right Whale breaching (Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources/ NOAA)
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