Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Citizen Science: Save Whales with Your Smartphone

Are you interested in saving West Coast whales from ship strikes? As Apple’s now trademarked saying goes, “There’s an app for that.”

Whale Alert 2.0 is available for free download from Apple’s online app store. Using the app, you can report sightings of whales, including endangered blue, humpback and fin whales, along the California coast and help alert incoming ships of their location. Real-time locations of reported whales can be viewed on the website,

This reporting is especially important since several West Coast ports, such as Long Beach and San Francisco Bay, include some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. And the conflict between feeding whales and large vessels is often deadly for whales.

According to the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, over 3,500 container and tanker ships enter and then leave the San Francisco Bay every year, while nearly 10,000 such ships travel in and out of ports along the entire California Coast.

Between 2010 and 2012, ships struck eight whales in the waters around San Francisco Bay. However, the number is likely ten times higher since dead whales often sink and are not immediately reported.

Photo: John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research Collective

Only one whale strike was confirmed in the area last year. This is in part due to the Whale Alert pilot project the West Coast Regional Office of the National Marine Sanctuaries, Point Blue Conservation Science and Conserve.IO initiated, which included an app called Spotter Pro for use by scientists and trained naturalists. Point Blue scientists have used this app daily on the Farallon Islands since 2013.

Within two months of the project’s launch, smartphone reports of whales in the Gulf of Farallones just outside San Francisco Bay resulted in the U.S. Coast Guard alerting commercial ships to slow or change course. Dozens of similar notices to mariners have followed.

Despite this initial success, citizen science is still very much needed for reporting whales.

“The endangered whales along the West Coast are recovering,” says Jaime Jahncke, Point Blue’s California Current Group Director. “It’s exciting that there are more whales. At the same time, the number of ships is steadily increasing and the conflict between whales and ships is only going to grow. We need all the help we can get.”

These whales, once hunted to the brink of extinction, now number in the thousands in the north Pacific Ocean. Although actual whale numbers are often difficult to obtain, scientists estimate there are 1,500 blue whales, 1,900 humpback whales and about 2,600 fin whales. These numbers only reflect a portion of their historical populations.

Besides limiting ship strikes, citizen reports also help scientists document whale numbers and migration patterns throughout the year. To date, over 4,200 people have downloaded Whale Alert 2.0 and have reported 482 whale sightings since last September.

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Photo: John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research Collective

Jahncke says overall this is a low number compared to the number of whales and ships out there. The goal also is to inspire more fishing charters, whale-watching companies and coastal state park staff to use Whale Alert 2.0.

“The more people reporting whales, the more we can protect them from oncoming ships,” Jahncke says. “And the more information we will have about endangered whales along the West Coast.”

In the coming year, the Whale Alert Program will expand to include the waters along Oregon and Washington as part of a partnership between the National Marine Sanctuaries, Point Blue, International Fund for Animal Welfare and app-developer Conserve.iO. The partnership also is working with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts to help launch a similar program along the East Coast.

Downloading Whale Alert 2.0 only takes a couple minutes. More information is available at


Main Photo: Humpback whale near San Francisco Bay. Photo: Sophie Webb, NOAA