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Turning the Tide against Threats to Ocean Life

Smart technology deployed off the Irish south coast can mean the difference between life & death for aquatic mammals

As an island nation, Ireland enjoys a special relationship with the ocean and the rich array of sea animals that breathe life into its waters. The Irish south coast is home to 25 species of resident and migratory whales, dolphins, and porpoises, which are collectively known as "cetaceans". They account for 48% of all mammals found in Ireland and a remarkable one-third of all cetaceans worldwide. As one of the world's most important foraging, resting, and reproductive habitats for cetaceans, this area of coast represents a natural choice for studying marine mammals and deploying tailor-made digital solutions that can ensure their longevity.

While Irish waters are protected under the EU Habitats Directive, the threat to local marine life remains very real. Marine traffic has exploded in volume along the south coast of Ireland, increasing tenfold over the past decade. More container ships are travelling from Canada to Cork Harbour, the second largest harbor in the world, which is compounded by increased traffic to and from Dublin and Liverpool ports. At the same time, increasing numbers of pleasure boats, speed craft, and ecotour operators are jostling for space in already crowded sea lanes.

As well as making deadly ship strikes much more likely, the corresponding rise in ambient noise pollution is devastating for aquatic mammals. Sound is intrinsic to all aspects of cetacean life, from communication, navigation, and finding mates, to avoiding predators and hunting.

For cetaceans, sound means survival.

Sound pollution causes as much damage to marine life as overfishing, pollution, and climate change, and is believed to cause behavioral changes that interfere with the health and survival of the animals. Emer Keaveney
Marine Mammal Ecologist, Ocean Research & Conservation Association Ireland

Saving by Listening

In March 2021, the Smart Whale Sounds project was launched to turn the tide with technology in the shape of a specially designed 13-foot, two-tonne buoy.

An autonomous hydrophone – a self-operating underwater microphone – is attached to the buoy to record whale calls and train sophisticated machine learning models to identify and classify the calls of different species. In optimal sea conditions, the hydrophone can detect dolphins within a range of 13 km2 and whales within 80 km2. This data will help determine how cetaceans are distributed, their behaviors, seasonal trends, and how noise pollution is changing baseline patterns. The resulting insights into Ireland's south coast will help optimize marine spatial planning, including the development of marine protected areas.

As of mid-April 2021, the hydrophone had recorded dolphin activity almost every hour of every day, with AI analytics classifying five different dolphin whistle types, as well as identifying echolocation, burst pulse sounds, and pure tonal whistles.

In the longer term, the technology could be used to develop an early warning system to instruct ships to reduce speed and avoid ship strikes. Making the data available to policy makers, the public, and other stakeholders can in turn raise awareness of marine science and of how human interference can pose an existential threat to cetaceans.

Hear the Harbor Porpoise in the Ocean

  • 80km2

    Detection radius for whales

  • 13km2

    Detection range for dolphins

The Smart Whale Sounds project draws together the cross-domain expertise of Cork-based NGO Ocean Research & Conservation Association Ireland, Rainforest Connection, and Huawei Ireland, which is supporting the project with Huawei's algorithms and cloud technology.

There's no better way to tap into the subtlety and the essence of ecology than through how nature calls to itself. To capture this at scale within our oceans, and harness the power of cloud-AI and big-data analysis, is the beginning of an unprecedented era of ambitious scientific discovery and critical conservation work. Topher White
CEO & Founder, Rainforest Connection