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The Pacific Ocean is home to the largest animal to ever live: the blue whale. An adult can weigh up to 200 tons (181 metric tons) and stretch nearly 100 feet (30.5 meters) in length. Despite its massive size and lack of natural predators, this gentle giant is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The blue whale’s precarious existence is mainly due to one thing – humans. NASA and NOAA have developed an online tool to better indicate where whales are now and where they are headed next, helping ships avoid whale strikes.

“The biggest threat to whale populations is still humans,” said Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA NMFS. And the threats, she said, include “Vessel collisions, climate change, habitat loss or destruction, entanglement in any kind of gear – marine debris or fishing gear.” According to NOAA NMFS, between 1988 and 2012, there were 100 documented large whale ship strikes along the California coast alone.

WhaleWatch model estimates from June 2016 for blue whales off the U.S. West Coast. Red color shows a higher likelihood of whale occurrence.
WhaleWatch model estimates from June 2016 for blue whales off the U.S. West Coast. Red color shows a higher likelihood of whale occurrence. Credit: WhaleWatch

Historically, the largest obstacle for protecting both ocean vessels and whales has been the lack of knowing where the whales were located. “The whale swims underwater most of the time and the ships don’t have a sensor that can see it,” explained Kip Louttit, the executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California. “In the same way that the ships are very conscious about the weather, they’re very conscious of the whales … and if they know where the whales are, they can avoid them.”

As part of their monitoring efforts, both scientists and mariners traditionally relied on boat surveys of whale migration and, later, tagging whales and tracking their locations through satellite telemetry. Despite this technological development, accidents have still been all too frequent. Now a joint NASA/NOAA project is using Earth observations to take this telemetry data one step further by predicting where the whales will likely be heading next.

Led by Helen Bailey, a research assistant professor with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, this project integrates a tagging database with NASA satellite information and makes it accessible through an online tool called WhaleWatch.

“We have tracking data from 1993 to 2009 that was collected by Bruce Mate and his team at Oregon State University,” said Bailey. “[With WhaleWatch] we are combining the satellite telemetry data for the whales with satellite-derived environmental data to understand not just where are the whales going, but why are they going there.”

This space-based fleet measures sea-surface height, sea-surface temperature, chlorophyll concentration and water depth. These factors help characterize habitats the blue whales favor or travel through during different times of their migration. Bailey’s team is able to determine suitable locations for the whales and predict where they will be moving along the California Current System, from Washington State south to Baja, California.

The benefit of the satellite data is that it fills the gaps in the telemetry data – providing new insights into blue whale migration and behavior. During the project’s research, the team found that “the most important variables [for whale behavior] were sea-surface temperature, which helped to explain the seasonal migration … chlorophyll concentration, which was related to the abundance of food, and ocean winds,” Bailey remarked.

With this plethora of environmental data, the project team created maps of standardized daily blue whale locations, as well as habitat-based models of population density and probability of occurrence – a blue whale forecast.

“[With WhaleWatch] we’re going to be getting information that we didn’t have before; which is this ability to predict in near real-time where we think [whales] might be.”

–Monica DeAngelis, NOAA NMFS

“[With WhaleWatch] we’re going to be getting information that we didn’t have before; which is this ability to predict in near real-time where we think [whales] might be,” DeAngelis said.

The team transitioned WhaleWatch over to NOAA Fisheries, where these forecast maps are publicly available on its website. Now, the question of knowing where the whales are located and headed can be solved by the click of a mouse.

Satellite image of the Pacific West Coast.
Satellite image of the Pacific West Coast. Credit: NASA

Due to its success with the blue whale, WhaleWatch is working to add other whale species to its database. “The bottom line is, this is the best available science,” DeAngelis noted. “We are now able to use that information to give whales a voice, so that humans can change their behavior to reduce the threat to whales.”

This story is part of our Space for U.S. collection. To learn how NASA data are being used in your state, please visit nasa.gov/spaceforus.

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This story is part of Space for U.S., a collection of stories showing how NASA data is being used across the country. Space for U.S. is where the power of NASA’s Earth observations come to life through state-by-state stories featuring communities like yours—solving our country’s biggest challenges with innovative technology, groundbreaking insights, and extraordinary collaboration.