Scientists Test New Infra-Red Technology To Study Whale in Cook Islands

Success of trial declared 'absolutely spectacular' 

By Richard Moore 

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Sept. 9, 2016) – Scientists have made an astounding breakthrough in their ability to study whales by using infra-red technology in the waters around Rarotonga.

In a world first, they have proven that the heat given off by whales will show up even in warm tropical waters.

American academic Travis Horton has been in Rarotonga testing an infra-red camera with researchers from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, as well as Nan Hauser and her team from the Whale and Wildlife Centre.

And the success of the project has been “absolutely spectacular”, Horton says.

He says they have only used the infra-red camera on the whales, while a multi-spectral camera has been conducting non-invasive archaeological examinations of an ancient marae site at Highland Paradise.

“We’ve only used the infrared camera on Nan’s boat. It has been absolutely spectacular.

“It allowed us to demonstrate the first of five questions we were after.”

Horton said the query was could they see a whale in the ocean using infrared?

“That’s an interesting question in the tropics, because there is such a small temperature difference between outer surface of the whale and the water they are in.

“Other scientists have shown you can use infra-red to detect whales in Antarctic waters, where the ocean is 4C and a whale is 28C.

“It’s a big difference in temperature, but here in the tropics you have 25C seawater and 28C whale skin only a few degrees’ difference.

“So it was a compelling science question as to if we could even see them. Given modern technology and the relatively high resolution fully infra-red camera we are using, it’s a piece of cake. So the first question was answered relatively quickly.

“So the first one is answered and that’s a fantastic result.

“The other question, on this particular trip, was how far away can we be to see them?

 “The second question is how far away can we be? Fifty metres, 100m, at 150m, 200m, at 400m?  Can we pick up those heat signatures of the whale or the blow?”

And they could.

Watching a laptop screen with infra-red images on it you could clearly make out the heat of the whale and then, whoosh, there was the blow. It registered perfectly.

Hauser seemed a little surprised, but elated, at the results.

“The seas were very rough. We had a hard time focusing on the whale itself. We were bobbing up and down…it was like being in a washing machine.”

“And the heat dissipates really quickly,” Horton says. “So, on a breezy day like that, the blow will blow away the blow.”

He says those were the two main questions they were seeking answers to on the current trip to Rarotonga. Now they have added three more queries to their investigative list.

“Can we create an automatic whale detection system from a shore-based platform that could operate day and night 365 days out of the year?

“With current technology that’s a real challenge. It has that distance limitation.

“As the technology improves we’ll be able to see farther and farther and farther out and if we can detect them at distance of 500m, then a shore-based auto-detection system is a viable technological innovation in a places like Oceania.

“Here you have thousands of islands, but only a few people actually going looking at whales.

“It’s a really strong way. You can never replace Nan, or duplicate or clone, you still need whale biologists, but it is a way to get the data.”

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