Researchers try whale-watching via satellite

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2014-02-24

Whales and dolphins are notoriously hard to study; they spend most of their lives underwater, travel great distances, and can be hard to see at sea. Furthermore, it's often tough to accurately calculate distance and identify species and sex from the deck of a research vessel.

But a new proof-of-concept paper in PLoS ONE suggests a different method: using satellites to identify and track marine mammals. For this pilot study, the scientists chose to study southern right whales, a species that is large, slow, and relatively easy to identify. They used just one satellite image, taken in 2012 by WorldView2. It’s a massive, very high-resolution image of a known breeding area off the coast of Argentina.

First, the researchers simply counted the objects in the image that might be whales, identifying 55 probable whales and 23 possible whales. Then they used image processing software to test how well computer programs could perform the same task. At best, this approach identified nearly 85 percent of the probable whales that the researchers had found, as well as 89 percent of the possible whales.

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