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How A.I. and underwater microphones are protecting whales in B.C.

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On a two-kilometre stretch of Boundary Pass near Saturna Island, underwater microphones known as hydrophones are used to capture whales in action. It’s a practice that’s been in place for years, but newly implemented technology is helping give mariners a heads up when a whale could be in their path.

“If it picks up a call of a killer whale, it’ll fire off a piece of data into our database that goes on in real time to mariners, directly to their phones,” said Alex Mitchell of Ocean Wise, manager of the Whale Report Alert System (WRAS). “The autonomous part is this is all done through machine learning algorithms.”

Ships within five nautical miles of a detected whale will receive an alert. The hope is the ship slows down or changes course to avoid a possible strike.

“We’re not using this tool as an enforcement tool,” said Mitchell. “This tool is to help mariners make informed decisions while they’re in the water. We’re not telling people what to do.”

It’s unclear how many whales are struck by ships each year but last summer alone three whales were hit over a 10-day period.

One conservationist calls the move a step forward in preventing collisions, but says more needs to be done to limit harmful sound pollution.

“It impairs their ability to communicate and forage efficiently,” said Valeria Vergara with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “And that, for whales that are endangered, such as southern resident killer whales, is a real problem.”

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation is calling for more noise-mitigation measures, including slower ship speed limits and exclusion zones.

“We need regional targets for noise reductions that mean something for the whales,” said Vergara.

Mitchell says the hope is to expand the range of the hydrophone and auto-detect system to protect as much marine life as possible.

“The exciting thing about integrating more technology into the system is that we have more automated detections which will allow detections to be had in bad weather, in nighttime, fog,” said Mitchell. “So it closes the gap between people looking at the water, and machines looking at the water.”

It’s believed there are less than 80 southern resident killer whales left in the world.

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