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'Whale Safe' Program Aims To Protect Whales From Cargo Ships

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Whales, though enormous, are no match for container ships and colossal tankers. And ship strikes are the leading cause of whale deaths. But as Gloria Hillard reports, a project to help prevent these fatal collisions is underway in one of the country's busiest marine shipping channels.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: The Condor Express pushes through rolling swells as it leaves the Santa Barbara Harbor. Piloting the whale watching boat is Captain Dave Beezer. We're headed 15 miles out to sea.

DAVE BEEZER: Santa Barbara Channel is a very prolific feeding area for a lot of different species of whales and dolphins.

HILLARD: It's also a highway, a very busy ocean highway with cargo traffic from across the Pacific.

BEEZER: We do have a whale here. I'm pretty sure it's going to be a humpback. It's been quite active. We've been watching it for a distance now.

HILLARD: Also in the distance, two giant cargo ships. Through the marine layer, they look like shrouded multistory buildings. Container ships can be as tall as 15 stories and three football fields in length. And just beneath them, unsuspecting endangered fin, humpback and blue whales. Also on board the whale watching boat is Doug McCauley, a marine biologist and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative.

DOUGLAS MCCAULEY: The blue whale is the largest animal that's ever lived on our planet. And it looks like a very small animal next to some of these mega ships.

HILLARD: He says the recommended speed in the channel is 10 knots. That's because when ships slow down, it reduces collisions with whales.

MCCAULEY: When they collide, unfortunately, with whales, you can have nearly all of the bones and the body of a whale broken, skulls fractured because it's like being run over in one go by 3,000 semi-trucks.

HILLARD: In hopes of giving whales a fighting chance for safe passage, McCauley helped launch Whale Safe. It alert ships to the presence of whales in real time. Think of it as a high-tech whale crossing guard, asking ships to please slow down.

MCCAULEY: No, we're not seeing blue whales yet, but we'll keep our fingers crossed. The buoy out there did hear blue whales yesterday.

HILLARD: On that buoy is an underwater microphone that records whale calls and then identifies the species through artificial intelligence. Citizen scientists in whale watching boats, like this one, also report whale sightings through a mobile app. McCauley says since its launch, more ships are participating. But...

MCCAULEY: We have some major shipping lines that are really just completely disregarding this opportunity for whale conservation.

THOMAS JELENIC: Vessel schedules are one of the issues that constrain the vessel and its ability to comply.

HILLARD: Thomas Jelenic is vice president with the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.

JELENIC: Vessels need to arrive at the next port of call based on a predetermined schedule.

HILLARD: Jelenic says voluntary reduce speed compliance improves each year but admits the industry has work to do. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also discussing imposing mandatory speed limits. In the meantime, the Whale Safe team is posting on its website the names of vessels and their A through F letter grades. The information is then shared with shipping companies and, in an attempt to build pressure, the public.

BEEZER: The humpback whale, definite humpback whale here...

HILLARD: No matter how many times marine biologist Doug McCauley has seen whales up close like this one, he's still in awe.

MCCAULEY: These are animals that have been living on the planet - this species - for millions of years.

HILLARD: The humpback whale, like the one visiting this boat, has a distinctive song. This recording was provided by the Whale Safe team.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SONG)

HILLARD: It's a sound that all those working in whale conservation hope never goes silent.

For NPR news, I'm Gloria Hillard off the coast of Santa Barbara.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.