New Ocean Alert app lets Alaskans share whale sightings with scientists

Cook Inlet beluga whale. (Public domain photo by Paul Wade/NOAA Fisheries)

You don’t have to know much about what you’re seeing to make the Ocean Alert app work.

Say you’re driving past Turnagain Arm and you see a beluga.

“You can say, ‘I saw a whale.’ Not have to know what species it is or anything like that,” said Jacob Levenson, a biologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “Or you can say, ‘I saw this whale, here’s a picture of its tail,’ and then there’s an artificial intelligence backend, Flukebook, that tells you if we’ve seen that whale before.”

Levenson and other BOEM scientists are using the new Ocean Alert app to crowdsource sightings of marine megafauna that will inform the agency’s work in federal waters. That means large animals you can see swimming from your car or boat or front porch, Levenson said.

“When it comes to megafauna, we’re looking for stuff that you can just see with your regular eyes. No need for microscopes or anything like that,” he said.

BOEM oversees offshore energy and mineral development on both U.S. coasts and in Alaska’s federal waters, including potential oil and gas lease sales in Cook Inlet.

Part of its work is identifying how projects could impact animals that live in a given area. To do that, it needs a better snapshot of what local ecosystems look like and how animals are moving in and out of those areas.

“The oceans are a changing place. It’s pretty cool, things are always changing, there’s always something showing up and going away,” Levenson said. “And scientists really can’t be everywhere at once. And so we made this app for a way for anyone to better work with scientists.”

The data collected through the app will never provide a full picture of the ocean’s wildlife in any given spot. But alongside other information, it gives BOEM a better sense of where endangered species are throughout the year, which helps it plan projects.

Levenson called this method of data collection “citizen science.” It’s a strategy already in use with apps like eBird and iNaturalist.

Flukebook is one piece of technology scientists are using to interpret sightings. Much like facial recognition software, it can detect markings on specific whales and determine whether that specific whale has already been identified.

Even without a photo, users can still enter comments and pinpoint where the sighting was. For non-whales, there’s a list of potential species.

Scientists and computers verify submitted sightings before they appear on other users’ screens. Additional data that BOEM and other scientific agencies collect shows up in real-time on the app.

Download Ocean Alert through the App Store or Google Play.

KDLL - Kenai

KDLL is our partner station in Kenai. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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