Press release

SAvE Whales project: Scientists, civil society and Greek government to deploy smart technology to prevent ship strikes on sperm whales in the Kythera strait

April 17, 2024

The Greek Ministry of Environment and Energy, the Natural Environment and Climate Change Agency of Greece, together with the international marine conservation organisation OceanCare and the Athens-based environmental think tank The Green Tank announced today, as part of the Our Ocean Conference 2024, their commitment to ensure the implementation of the “SAvE Whales” system in the Strait of Kythira. This innovative technology is designed as a complementary tool to protect the endangered sperm whales from collision with ships in areas where re-routing of vessel traffic is not possible.

Ship strikes are recognized as the main threat to sperm whales in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Hellenic Trench, stretching between the Ionian, South Cretan and Levantine Seas, is a core habitat for this species and a high-risk area for ships colliding with whales. That region is passed by around 30,000 large ships every year. Between 1992 and 2021, more than 50% of the sperm whales found stranded on the Greek coastline showed clear marks of collisions with ships. With its commitment to support the implementation of the SAvE Whales system, the Greek government makes a significant step towards its international obligations to take action for the protection of this endangered species.

Alexandros Frantzis, President of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute explained:

“The sperm whale population in the whole Mediterranean Sea is listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as an endangered species. In the Eastern Mediterranean, only about 200 of these marine giants are left. In certain regions, like the Strait of Kythira, the preferred option of re-routing of vessel traffic is hardly possible, so we need special alert systems to prevent collisions here. Therefore, it is excellent news that funding has been secured from the Greek government and OceanCare to implement the SAvE Whales technology in this area with the objective to develop a system that will be 365 days a year operational. Together with re-routing measures along the remaining Hellenic Trench, this could become a bright example at the global scale on how science, technology and conservation management can protect an endangered species of the oceans’ megafauna locally.”

During the 9th Our Ocean Conference, held in Athens from 15-17 April 2024, a collaboration between OceanCare, The Green Tank, the Greek Ministry of Environment and Energy (MEEN), and the Natural Environment and Climate Change Agency of Greece (NECCA) – involving the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute and the Institute of Applied and Computational Mathematics (FORTH) – has been announced. The collaboration aims to scaling up the “SAvE Whales” (System for the Avoidance of ship-strikes with Endangered Whales) technology, so it can ultimately become an official mitigation and warning tool that will alert mariners about the presence of sperm whales in the Strait of Kythira.

Nicolas Entrup, Director of International Cooperations at OceanCare added:

“SAvE Whales will help to reduce potential collisions between shipping vessels and large marine mammals. The system shall act as complementary tool to routing measures, such as moving shipping lanes outside the core habitat of sperm whales wherever possible. OceanCare is therefore delighted to be able to contribute €700,000 to the funding of this innovative approach that has been developed by Greek researchers.”

The SAvE Whales system is an innovative system locating the exact position of sperm whales up to 7 kilometers and transmitting the information in real-time to inform mariners to slow down or adjust route in order to avoid collision. Having proved effective during a pilot period between 2019 and 2021, off SW Crete, through the announced collaboration, the SAvE Whales system will now be upscaled for full year (365 days) continuous (24/7) operation in the sea area between the Strait of Kythira (between the island of Kythira and the mainland) and Cape Tainaron (southern Peloponnese).

Ioli Christopoulou, Policy Director of The Green Tank, highlighted:

“With great joy we welcome the commitment of Greek to secure €2,300,000 using resources from the Green Fund and NECCA for the implementation of SAvE Whales. This landmark decision is a clear sign that Greece is seriously committed to fulfil its global, European and national biodiversity conservation targets – especially those regarding the conservation of sperm whales, and possibly other megafauna.”

NECCA ultimately will take over the operation of the project, while MEEN will ensure that the relevant conditions for the full operation of the project and the involvement of relevant authorities are fulfilled.

The collaboration begins with an initial phase during which the details of the necessary steps for the development, testing and full operation of the system will be defined. The SAvE Whales system is planned to become fully operational in around 4-5 years.

Notes for Editors:

  • SAvE Whales, which stands for “System for the Avoidance of ship-strikes with Endangered Whales” offers a world first technology, serving as a complementary tool to the two primary response measures to the threat of ship strikes, namely ship re-routing and speed reduction, and particularly in those areas where re-routing is hardly possible. One such area is the Strait of Kythira between the island of Kythira and Cape Tainaron (southern Peloponnese).
  • In short, the system uses solar-powered high-tech buoys and/or cabled bottom stations equipped with hydrophones that receive the clicking sounds of the sperm whales, process them and send filtered data to a land-based analysis centre where computer models are used to detect, precisely localize the animals, and finally forward the localization fixes to nearby ships, all in real time. Specifically developed software combines localization results with shipping information from Marine Traffic, a leading ship tracking service provider, to assess collision risk. If a vessel is on a collision course with a whale, its captain can be warned well in advance, such that the ship slows down and/or changes course in time to prevent the collision.
  • OceanCare has been leading the development of SAvE Whales. The system was carried out by Greek researchers from the Institute of Applied and Computational Mathematics – FORTH (Greece) and the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (Greece), through collaboration with Marine Traffic, Green2Sustain and the CINTAL research centre – University of Algarve (Portugal). Following its successful pilot trials (2020-2021), OceanCare in collaboration with the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute,the Institute of Applied and Computational Mathematics – FORTH and The Green Tank provided test results as well as suggestions for its implementation to the Greek authorities.
  • You can watch OceanCare’s video animation “SAvE Whales – Protecting sperm whales from ship collisions” here. The video is also available in Greek as well as in German and Spanish.