Buy an iPhone, save a whale

There is indeed an app for that.
There is indeed an app for that.
Image: John Calambokidis/AP
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No, that’s not Apple’s latest marketing slogan. But scientists hope that some of the hordes of fans queuing up to buy the latest iPhones, which were released today in nine countries, will download a whale-spotting app that will help them plot shipping routes to avoid cetacean collisions in the waters off northern California.

The Pacific Ocean between the Golden Gate—the entrance to San Francisco Bay—and the Farallon Islands 30 miles offshore is a smorgasbord of seafood for endangered blue whales and their cousins. It’s also a marine freeway for tankers and container ships, with more than 7,300 passing through the Golden Gate each year.

The blue whale may be the world’s largest animal, but it’s no match for a 40,000-ton boat. Ship strikes are suspected in the death of several whales that have washed up on San Francisco Bay Area beaches this year alone. But scientists estimate the actual number of whale deaths to be as much as 10 times higher, given that many of the marine mammals sink to the bottom of the ocean undetected after being killed.

By distributing the app, Spotter Pro (developed by Conserve.IO for logging sightings of all sorts of plants and animals, not just whales) through Apple’s iTunes store, scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hope shipping company operators, fishing boat crews and tourist boat captains, as well as binocular-carrying whale enthusiasts, will gather extensive data on whale movements. That in turn will help the US Coast Guard and shipping companies fine-tune routes and adjust ship speeds to avoid whale collisions when real-time reports show the animals are traveling or congregating to feed.

“The goal of the app is to collect as much data as possible – that’s why having everyone from ship captains to whale watching naturalists collaborate in tracking whales in the area is important,”  Jaime Jahncke, director of Point Blue Research Group’s California Current Research operation, told Quartz in an email. “The crowdsourced data will then be checked and confirmed by Point Blue biologists and other scientists.”

The app lets citizen-scientists time-stamp the location of whales they spot on detailed maps, record the animal’s behavior and weather conditions and then upload that data along with any photos taken.

This weekend scientists from Point Blue, a private conservation organization, and NOAA will take the app on a shake-down cruise to track whales as well as record the presence of other marine life and environmental conditions.