NOAA taps video analysis to track whales

NOAA builds automatic whale detector

Researchers tracking whale migrations have to keep their eyes peeled because the watchers, human or automated, only get a few minutes to spot a blow from a whale as it surfaces to breathe.

But now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is using a combination of thermal-imaging cameras and video analysis software to better estimate the number of gray whales as they swim along the California coast a bit south of Monterey Bay.

Thermal-imaging cameras are not a revolutionary technology as they are used by local law enforcement to track criminals from helicopters. The NOAA cameras, which come in sets of three, work with software that differentiates warmer air that comes from discharge of the blowholes from surrounding air. 

The new software is not only capable of distinguishing the discharged air from birds and boats, but it can predict when and where the same whale will resurface again.  It can track and predict locations of gray whales through an algorithm that was developed over years of tracking the behavior of gray whales. 

The  prediction algorithm, which is based on years of research into gray whale diving behavior, allows the computer to track individual whales. “If you don’t have a way of tracking who’s who, you can double-count some whales or miss them altogether,” said Dave Weller, the NOAA Fisheries scientist who leads the survey team.

The prediction software is a huge improvement over the previous methodology in which one scientist would spot using high powered binoculars and another would record.  That limited counting to daytime hours, but now the thermal-imaging cameras can capture whale spouts day and night. 

The new system is still being compared with in-person sightings to ensure its accuracy.  Still, scientists are very excited about this new development.  “The biggest advantage of the new system is that it vastly increases our sample size,” Weller said.  “That means we can more accurately estimate the size of the population.”  

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.


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