Revelations from the Undersea Internet of Things

Finding the Right Whale on Mobile Devices

I recently attended a media event announcing a Whale Alert app for the iPhone and iPad.

Picture an Urban Spoon-type app. You know — the kind where you shake the device and it recommends restaurants based on your location and preferences. But instead of restaurant information, the app could tell you when a particular whale species was near. Say, for example, you’re a fan of the minkie whale. You appreciate the minkie’s geniality and intellect. You share common interests, perhaps a love of krill. If there were a minkie nearby and your schedules permitted, you’d welcome an opportunity to engage. Ideally that same app could filter out less-desirable species like the campy beluga, the pedantic humpback, and that creepy airbrushed-unicorn-painting of cetaceans, the porpoise. Cool app concept, right?

The Whale Alert app doesn’t do any of that. In fact, chances are that if you’re reading this you’re not the target audience for Whale Alert. But stay with me. This is really about the Internet of things. Whale Alert is about bringing together previously isolated sets of data and connecting interested parties — in this case, ship captains and whales — all through the application of mobile technologies.

Whale Alert is imperfect for reasons I’ll get into, but I also think it’s interesting and instructive. It’s ultimately about the Internet of “things with relatively unambiguous ecological-benefits as opposed to boring contextually-aware apps that give you deals on parking and other garbage you may think you need”. If that catches fire as a new app category I want full credit. Meanwhile, here’s a bit about the app and how it may one day work.

The free Whale Alert app was created by EarthNC and Gaia GPS on behalf of a partnership that includes the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the International Federation for the Welfare of Animals (IFAW), and an alphabet soup of other government agencies, NGOs, private shipping companies, Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. EarthNC and Gaia GPS are doing fantastically innovative work synthesizing and digitizing different sources of geographic and hydrographic data and adapting it for a universe of possible uses.

As its name implies, Whale Alert is designed to alert commercial shipping traffic in near real time about the location of North Atlantic right whales, in this case around the approaches to Boston Harbor. The eventual objective is to expand coverage up and down the eastern seaboard of the US.

The NOAA estimates the current population of North Atlantic right whales at between 350 and 550, down from tens of thousands during the commercial whaling era in North America. The population collapse has been catastrophic, and is verging on complete.

Today one of the major threats to North Atlantic right whales is being struck by a ship. The experts assembled at the event said there were one or two reported serious or lethal incidents along the US Atlantic coast each year. There are sure to be more unreported incidents. Jettisoned fishing gear is also a significant threat.

Here’s a screen-grab of the Whale Alert app from an iPad I’ve been using.

Whale Alert screenshot


The 10 circles with whale’s tails represent buoys, shown on the left. These are arrayed along the purple separation zone between the inbound and outbound sections of the Great South Channel, the main commercial shipping lane into Boston. The yellow icons indicate where hydrophones attached to the buoys have detected right whales. Whales come and go, of course, so the alerts are active for a predetermined period, after which the yellow icon goes back to grey.

Here’s roughly how it works. The hydrophones pick up ocean noises up to five miles away, including whale song. The signals are transmitted over an Iridium satellite link to Cornell University, where the right whale’s unique “voice” is isolated algorithmically. When a right whale is detected, Cornell alerts NOAA. NOAA alerts the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard operates a series of terrestrial Automatic Identification System (AIS) stations, which then broadcast the alert to shipping within VHF range and with the appropriate equipment.

If this sounds like a lot of steps to change the color of an icon on an app screen, that’s because it is. And the icons may not change colour very much at all, because the area’s full of whales. I asked the experts how frequently they expected the yellow condition to be in effect on a given buoy or two. The answer, essentially, was “all the time”. This has been the case whenever I’ve checked the app.

And that’s not all. AIS is a relatively new system used in international commercial shipping as well as by the military. It’s not mandatory equipment, so not all ships carry it. The system broadcasts basic but essential information about a ship such as its identity, heading and speed. Other ships and terrestrial stations are thus able to know who’s going in which direction and at what speed. But VHF transmisions have a limited range. This is OK for two ships on either side of a horizon moving at 18 knots. But a terrestrial station will not have anything like the overall view an air traffic controller has. Within the Boston alert area there is apparently only one terrestrial AIS transmitter. So I’d expect there to be some inconsistencies alerting all relevant ship traffic.

Then there’s the problem of how the app receives its dynamic updates. The serial AIS data containing the alert about the right whale goes to the AIS receiver on a ship. The data must then be transcoded and sent over Wi-Fi to the Apple device. A great many ships do not have Wi-Fi, especially as there’s nothing to connect it to much of the time.

The event featured a commercial ship with the system installed. The iPad was mounted at the back of the bridge deck, away from the wheel, radio, controls and commercial-grade electronic navigation system which is in no way compatible with the Whale Alert app. I couldn’t help wondering how seriously the crew would take the app, or worse yet how soon before the taxpayer-sponsored iPad became the platform for maritime Angry Birds tournaments.

I’m not sure the app is going to be particularly effective for a variety of mostly technical reasons. But I don’t say that to belittle the initiative. As these things go there are many conditions that need to be satisfied to create a robust solution, so in my opinion this one gets credit as early progress.

I was very impressed and encouraged by what I’d call the sum of the parts that comprise Whale Alert. The app is at once a practical example of how critical but isolated information can be brought out for the greater good of nature and commerce. This kind of thing is happening all the time, of course, but Whale Alert struck me as a metaphor for the greater benefits to society these projects can create. So next time you’re planning to zip through Massachusetts Bay in your mega-yacht, download this app first, and post a lookout in the crow’s nest anyway. Happy whale-spotting.