It isn’t easy being a right whale, and hasn’t been for several centuries. They are so named because they were the ‘right’ whales to hunt: they swim slowly and close to shore, obligingly float at the surface when harpooned, and contain large amounts of oil. Consequently, they were relentlessly targeted by commercial whalers, as a result of which (unsurprisingly) their numbers plunged. Although populations are rebounding in the Southern Hemisphere, they remain perilously low in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic (although here, too, there may be some slow recovery).

PHOTOS: Sea Monsters Real & Imagined

PHOTOS: Sea Monsters Real & Imagined

In the North Atlantic, biologists estimate the population to be somewhere north of 400 individuals, small enough to be vulnerable to even relatively low levels of mortality and human threats. Unfortunately, the bulk of the North Atlantic’s right whales live at least part of the year in the waters of the northeastern United States, heavily trafficked by fishing gear and shipping; nearly three-quarters of known right whales bear scars from past entanglement in fishing gear, while 29 percent of documented right whale deaths since 1970 are from collisions with ships.

Some of the same characteristics that made right whales so attractive to whalers – their coastal milieu, their habit of swimming slowly and close to the surface – makes them especially vulnerable to ship strikes, and as a result the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has established a series of measures to reduce the likelihood of collisions. These include mandatory speed restrictions and voluntary vessel re-routing in certain areas at certain times.

However, providing mariners with real-time information on right whale whereabouts has been a challenge, with ship pilots who asked to receive whale conservation data relying on radio, e-mails, and faxes of whale sighting locations. Now, however, NOAA, in association with the National Park Service, the United States Coast Guard, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and other partners, has produced an app for iPads and iPhones that provides those real-time updates.

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A key feature of the app, called Whale Alert, is a display that provides information from a system of acoustic buoys that listen for right whale calls in and around Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The app also uses Global Positioning System (GPS), Automatic Identification System (AIS), the World-Wide Web, and digital nautical chart technologies to alert mariners to NOAA’s right whale conservation measures that are active in their immediate vicinity. 

The app is available for free download from the iTunes store.

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IMAGE: Southern Right Whale off Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia. (Paul Souders, Corbis)