Athens/Zurich, 17th July 2019: Today, the multinational interdisciplinary “SAvE Whales” project, which combines expertise from the fields of marine biology, underwater acoustics, applied mathematics, computer networking, informatics and real-time marine traffic data, is being announced with the objective to save endangered whales from being struck by (large) ships. “SAvE Whales” stands for “System for the Avoidance of ship-strikes with Endangered Whales”.

The project aims to develop and test an automated system that listens out for sperm whales, locates them across busy routes of shipping traffic and provides captains with real-time information allowing them to avoid collisions. The system will also be generating data, which can be useful for learning more about these animals and the impacts of human activities in their habitat, helping in this way to develop a more effective conservation approach.

The pilot project is scheduled to last three years and will be carried out in Greek waters, the home of endangered sperm whales. If successful, the system will serve as an effective conservation tool and has the potential to be replicated in other regions, thereby protecting whales from being hit by large ships in other oceans, too.

The deep underwater canyons of the Hellenic Trench off Greece are home to around 200 sperm whales, the largest toothed animal species on earth, also famous as “Moby Dick”. The species classifies as endangered in the Mediterranean Sea and these animals might be the last remaining of their kind in the entire eastern Mediterranean region. And while nowadays ingestion of plastic litter, entanglement in fishing gear and intensive noise emissions pose serious threats to the species, by far the most serious threat in the eastern Mediterranean is to collide with a large commercial ship.

Density of all ship traffic reported through AIS transmissions and sperm whale sightings (red dots) from the surveys of Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute since 1998. Traffic to the SW of Crete north of Gavdos Island is mainly dominated by container ships heading to or from the eastern Mediterranean (ports east of Port Said and the Suez Canal) through the Strait of Otranto or Strait of Messina. The main route of concern for sperm whales is between the Strait of Otranto and the Aegean via Elafonisos Strait, north of Kythira Islan d. The scale for shipping density plots is in km-1year-1.

The area which has been identified by long-term research as an important feeding as well as breeding ground for sperm whales, is also an extremely busy shipping lane. All the large vessel traffic moving from the Adriatic Sea to the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the southeastern Mediterranean or towards the Suez Canal and vice-versa crosses this core habitat [see graph. Source PLOS One article]. About 30% of the world’s shipping traffic takes place in the Mediterranean Sea. This small semi-enclosed sea suffers proportionally the heaviest maritime traffic of all oceans in the world. It is estimated that more than 220,000 large vessels cross the Mediterranean Sea every year. 31,000 of them cross the Hellenic Trench when entering or exiting the Aegean Sea through the Elafonisos and Kythira Straits and 13’000 sail parallel to the Ionian Islands Kefalonia and Zakynthos along the core habitat of the sperm whales in the Hellenic Trench heading either north or south. This is what the sperm whales have to face on a daily basis …

Experts from different fields now team up for an ambitious project that shall provide an effective solution to prevent collisions between ships and whales, in areas where shipping traffic cannot be moved away from whale habitat and has to cross it. The project is led by top whale researcher, Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, from the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (PCRI), and brings on board experts from the Institute of Applied and Computational Mathematics of the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH), the Centro de Investigação Tecnológica do Algarve of the University of Algarve, Green2Sustain and Marine Traffic. The Swiss-based and internationally acting marine conservation organisation OceanCare, which runs a large-scale programme protecting marine wildlife in the Mediterranean Sea, is enabling the project. OceanCare has secured funds to give the green light to start it and is working to raise the remaining funds in the coming months.

“We are fully committed to this ambitious, visionary and solution-oriented project. We have hope and trust in this pilot, which could become a true whale-saving model to be applied in other regions across the globe”, says Sigrid Lüber, president of OceanCare who has founded the organisation exactly 30 years ago.

“Although Aristotle was aware of the presence of sperm whales in the Greek Seas some 2350 years ago, this knowledge was lost with the centuries. When in 1998 we discovered that sperm whales were living close to the southwest coast of Crete – in the very same area where the ‘SAvE Whales’ project will take place – we had no idea about their number, their degree of residency, or the potential threats they were facing. We just had a strong will to learn as much as we could about their lives and follow them at the personal level one by one (through photo-identification) with the years, as they would get older and would acquire offspring in parallel to our own lives. Some fifteen years later we realized that if we were not going to act, the fate of this small eastern Mediterranean population was to disappear because of human activities that threaten it, with ship-strikes being the major threat locally capable to erase them from the map. We want them alive because the Mediterranean would become much poorer without its own Moby Dick and also because the Mediterranean sperm whales have the right to survive and live peacefully together with us in this region! This is why with innovative technology and a multidisciplinary approach we will do whatever possible to save these whales from extinction,” says Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, president of Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, who discovered the sperm whale population of the eastern Mediterranean some 20 years ago. The Hellenic Trench is also recognized as an important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA).

Quotes Project Partners:

“We’ve been working for many years on the development of methods and systems for passive underwater acoustic localization, and this is the opportunity to aim for applied research that will actually make a difference to the lives of these remarkable creatures.”

Dr. Emmanuel Skarsoulis, Research Director, Institute of Applied and Computational Mathematics (IACM), Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH)

“Been working for 30+ years in underwater acoustics, but now the extraordinary sensation of, finally, doing something.”

Dr. Sérgio Jesus, CINTAL – University of Algarve, Portugal

“MarineTraffic always engages closely with the global community to understand the challenges and communicate solutions. In SAvE Whales, we will provide the data management tools necessary for the protection of cetaceans.”

Dimitris Lekkas, Founder, MarineTraffic, the world’s leading provider of ship tracking

“Our work is to support organizations achieve their stewardship targets to the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 – SAvE Whales signifies our own stewardship to marine life.”

Dr. George Tentes, General director – Sustainability Consultant, Green2Sustain pcc

Partners of the project funded by OceanCare:

  • Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (PCRI)
  • Institute of Applied and Computational Mathematics (IACM) – Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH)
  • Centro de Investigação Tecnológica do Algarve (CINTAL)
  • MarineTraffic, the world’s leading provider of ship tracking
  • Green2Sustain pcc, environment and sustainability consultants

For further information:

Nicolas Entrup, Ocean Policy Expert at OceanCare, E-Mail. nentrup@oceancare.org,
M. + 43 660 211 9963