Tracking whales from the ferry? There's an app for that

SEATTLE -- New technology could help ships and ferries navigate around whales in Washington, reducing the chances of a deadly ship strike.

This week, Washington State Ferries will be the first to use the WhaleReport Alert System throughout Puget Sound, which will alert captains to credible whale sightings in the area.

Vessels are one of the main threats to the critically endangered southern resident orcas, both in terms of disturbance and the potential for a catastrophic ship strike.

In 2016, an 18-year-old orca male known as DoubeStuf, or J34, died from blunt force trauma injuries due to a ship strike, according to the necropsy.

This summer, a ferry hit and likely killed a young humpback whale in Elliott Bay. It was a rare strike for WSF, which typically has employees on board tasked with looking out for marine mammals.

Passengers reported seeing the humpback surface just feet in front of the ferry before getting hit. It may have been unavoidable, but there is always more that can be done to alert ferries to the presence of whales as they navigate Puget Sound.

"I think we need as many tools as we can have, reasonably," said WSF spokesman Dana Warr, speaking about the new WhaleReport Alert System. "This will be used and hopefully can avoid something that was unavoidable last time."

WSF plans to use the technology across its fleet. Ocean Wise, which created the app, said they hope Port of Seattle and the U.S. Navy will pick it up as well. The app is widely used north of the border in British Columbia, but WSF will be the first commercial partner in Washington.

The information is only useful if people report whale sightings. Anyone can do that by downloading the Whale Report app on a smart phone. On the app, you can create a new report, select the species, add a photo and any other helpful information. The app can tag your location to mark the whale sighting.

Ocean Wise said they have a network of about 7,000 people that create credible whale sighting reports, but most of those are in Canada. They will need to expand that network south in Washington. Orca Network, which regularly warns boaters of the presence of whales, told Q13 News they will be among the contributors.

While anyone can report a sighting, only commercial maritime vessels like ferries and ships will be able to see the results.

"We don't want to tell a bunch of people where the whales are and then there's more vessel pressure on these whales, which is the exact opposite of our intention," said Jessica Scott of Cetacean Sightings Network. "That's why it's just for commercial mariners."

It's not the only app in town. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has a sophisticated sighting app for its captains. It's currently private, but a PWWA spokesman told Q13 News they are discussing sharing the sightings with maritime, military and research boats to protect the whales.

Ocean Wise said 30 percent of the sightings on the Whale Report app also come from commercial whale watch captains.