BOSTON (Reuters) - Efforts to protect the North Atlantic right whale have gone high-tech with the creation of an iPad/iPhone application that can warn mariners when they approach an area where the highly endangered mammals are congregating.
The Whale Alert app, available for free download, uses global positioning system and other technology to send the latest data about right whale detections, overlaid on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) digital charts, to the user's device.
The project is a joint effort between NOAA and other government agencies, including the National Park Service and the Coast Guard, universities, and conservation groups.
The system hopes to limit the number of deadly collisions between whales and vessels, especially large vessels such as cruise ships and container ships. When whales are detected in an area, ships can alter course slightly or slow down.
Marine authorities estimate there are only 350 to 550 of the massive mammals left in the world.
"Right whales are an iconic species for those who live on the coast of Massachusetts and the Northeast U.S.," said Patrick Ramage, director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.
The U.S. commercial whaling industry was centered in New England for hundreds of years before it was wound down in the early 20th Century.
"In a region where for generations New Englanders have harnessed technology to find whales and kill them, now in the 21st century we are harnessing technology to find them and save them," Ramage said.
North Atlantic right whales live along the coast of North America from Newfoundland to Florida.
The creatures, which have a normal lifespan of 50 to 70 years and can weigh around 70 tons, are vulnerable to getting struck by ships because they live in near-shore waters, feed close to the surface, and are notoriously slow swimmers.
Collisions with vessels killed more than one third of the right whales which were reported dead between 1970 and 2007.
Given the fragility of the population, the loss of even one whale - especially a breeding-age female - can have a significant impact on the species.
In major shipping lanes to and from Boston, whale detection will be aided by real-time acoustic detection buoys that essentially listen for whale activity.
"The whales are calling each other. We are eavesdropping into the social network of right whales living off the coast of Massachusetts," said Christopher Clark, director of the bioacoustics research program at Cornell University.
The app was developed for Apple's iPads and iPhones by EarthNC, which specializes in spatial mapping systems for the leisure boating community, and Gaia GPS, which designs backcountry topographic maps.
Reporting By Ros Krasny; Editing by Sandra Maler