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A new approach to protecting whales from ship strikes

In the age of global connectivity, fiber-optic cables have become the backbone of communication, stretching across continents and oceans. These cables not only facilitate telecommunications but also provide researchers with a unique opportunity to study various natural phenomena, such as storms, earthquakes, and even the behavior of marine life.

A recent study by scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) demonstrated the potential of using fiber-optic cables to track and monitor the movements of whales. Researchers worked with two nearly parallel fiber-optic telecommunications cables off the Norwegian arctic archipelago of Svalbard, where they were able to estimate the positions and tracks of eight fin whales along a section of the cable for five hours.

Martin Landrø, head of the Centre for Geophysical Forecasting at NTNU and one of the members of the research team, said, “This work demonstrates how we were able to simultaneously locate and follow these whales over an 1800 km2 area – with relatively low infrastructure investment.”

The researchers employed a technique called Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) to achieve this breakthrough. DAS involves using an interrogator to send laser pulses into a fiber-optic system and recording the returning light pulses, effectively transforming the cables into a series of hydrophones. These hydrophones can detect underwater vibrations and sounds, offering valuable insights into the underwater world.

Landrø and his colleagues initially started investigating the capabilities of DAS in June 2020, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. They conducted their first experiments in the waters off Svalbard, collecting 40 days of recordings and approximately 250 terabytes of data. The analysis of this data enabled researchers to identify over 800 whale songs and calls.

This pioneering work laid the foundation for further research, as the team has since improved their ability to identify different whale species and has begun conducting real-time recordings from the fiber-optic cables in Svalbard. By tapping into the existing network of fiber-optic cables, researchers are now able to monitor and study marine life with minimal additional infrastructure investment.

The researchers had access to two nearly parallel 250 km long fibre-optic cables that run from Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard, to Ny-Ålesund, a research outpost to the northwest. These paired cables enabled the team to pinpoint the location of whales within an area of approximately 1800 km2 with an accuracy of around 100 meters.

Martin Landrø, one of the researchers involved in the study, emphasized the significance of their findings: “This shows that the two fibre cables are a very effective means of monitoring whales in the Arctic.”

Svalbard, a Norwegian territory in the high Arctic, provides a crucial base for Landrø and other scientists to study the rapidly changing ecosystem in the region. Recent research predicts that the Arctic could become ice-free during the summer as early as 2035, potentially resulting in increased shipping and cruise ship traffic across the top of the globe. 

As an example, Visit Svalbard estimates that up to 75,000 people will be transported to Longyearbyen and its surroundings in 2023 via 35 cruise ships and additional smaller expedition vessels.

Whales have been adapting to the changing Arctic and Antarctic environments, with some fin whales now spending time year-round in Arctic waters. 

This shift in behavior, combined with increased shipping traffic, raises the risk of ship strikes. However, the researchers believe that utilizing the existing fibre-optic cable network and Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) could help mitigate this risk.

In their paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the scientists highlight the potential for near-real-time whale tracking. “The capabilities demonstrated here establish the potential for a near-real-time whale tracking capability that could be applied anywhere in the world where there are whales and fiber-optic cables.” 

The researchers further suggest that combining this technology with ship detection could lead to the development of a real-time collision avoidance system, reducing the likelihood of ship strikes.

This discovery comes at a time when NORDUnet, the Nordic Gateway for Research and Innovation, and the Nordic NRENs have initiated several projects to explore and plan the first submarine fibre-optic cable system connecting Europe, Asia, and North America via a shorter route through the Arctic Ocean. 

This effort, dubbed Polar Connect, could have significant implications for monitoring whale movements in the region. Landrø noted, “If such an initiative is realized, it would open far greater areas for us to follow whale movements in the Arctic.”

This innovative approach to studying marine mammals not only showcases the adaptability of fiber-optic technology but also has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the ocean and its inhabitants. With continued advancements in this field, scientists may unlock new avenues for conservation and the protection of endangered marine species.

More about whales and ship strikes

Ship strikes pose a significant threat to whale populations worldwide. As maritime traffic increases due to expanding global trade and tourism, the likelihood of collisions between ships and whales also rises. 

Ship strikes can result in severe injuries or fatalities for whales, contributing to the decline of their populations, particularly among endangered species.

Several factors contribute to the risk of ship strikes:

Shipping lanes

Many commercial shipping routes overlap with whale habitats, migratory paths, or feeding grounds. This increases the probability of encounters between ships and whales.


Ships traveling at high speeds have a greater chance of striking whales, as both the ship and the whale have less time to react and avoid a collision. Additionally, high-speed impacts typically cause more severe injuries or fatalities.

Whale behavior

Some whale species spend considerable time near the water’s surface, making them more vulnerable to collisions. Moreover, certain activities like feeding, mating, or nursing calves may also distract whales, reducing their ability to detect and avoid approaching ships.

Noise pollution

Increased noise levels from ships can interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate, navigate, and detect potential threats. This can impair their ability to avoid collisions.

Ship size

Larger ships may be less maneuverable and have longer stopping distances, making it more difficult for them to avoid whales in their path.

Efforts to reduce ship strikes include:

Implementing speed restrictions in areas with high whale concentrations or during specific seasons when whales are more likely to be present.

Establishing alternative shipping routes that avoid critical whale habitats, migratory paths, or feeding grounds.

Implementing real-time whale tracking and reporting systems, like the one mentioned in the previous article, to alert ships of nearby whales and help them adjust their course accordingly.

Developing and adopting quieter ship technologies to reduce noise pollution and its impact on whales.

Increasing awareness and training among mariners about the risks of ship strikes and ways to minimize them.

Despite these efforts, ship strikes remain a pressing concern for whale conservation around the world. Continued research, technological advancements, and cooperation between the shipping industry and conservation organizations are essential to protect whales from this growing threat.


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