A group of scientists has begun an audit of whales in the Mediterranean, using pioneering new satellite technology that allows the animals to be found and counted from space.
Fin and sperm whales will be observed in remote parts of the Mediterranean Sea using very high resolution, or VHR, satellite imagery, which scientists have described as a "game-changer."
Dolphins and whales
Oceans and Seas (by name)
They hope to use the census to develop a system that will automatically alert ships' captains when they are entering an area populated by whales, in order to reduce ship strikes on the mammals.
"Most whale populations have been increasing after they were hunted almost to extinction in the 20th century, but some whale populations are struggling and that's because of things like ship strikes and net entanglements," said Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey, or BAS, which is leading the project.
"There aren't that many whales in the Mediterranean and the countries would really like to protect the whales in the ocean there," he added. "One ship strike is too many when you've only got a couple of hundred."
The International Whaling Commission, or IWC, aims to develop solutions to combat ship strikes on whales by 2020, but it warns that the problem is difficult to quantify.
The technology has already been used to photograph whales in other locations, including southern right whales near Argentina, humpback whales off Hawaii and gray whales close to the coast of Mexico.
Developed by satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe, each pixel in the photographs is equivalent to 30 centimeters on Earth.
"This is the most detailed imagery of whales captured by satellites to date," said Hannah Cubaynes, a whale ecologist at BAS. "It's exciting that the improved resolution reveals characteristic features, such as flippers and flukes, which can be seen in the images for the first time."
The technology allows observation of whales to take place in areas that boats and ships have difficulty reaching.
"The ability to track whales without traveling to these remote and inaccessible areas, in a cost-effective way, will be of great benefit to conservation efforts for whales," Cubaynes explained.
A 1986 ban on commercial whaling passed by the IWC has helped restore the global population of the species, but a study in September warned they are still at risk from chemical pollutants banned more than 40 years ago.
"This new technology could be a game-changer in helping us to find whales remotely," BAS ecologist Jennifer Jackson added.