Can historical whaling data be put to good use?

Researchers at the University of Washington have created WhaleVis, an online map collating a century’s worth of data on commercial whaling between the 1880s and 1980s.

They hope the map which visualises whaling routes, species and catch size might assist scientists working to protect the marine animals.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) maintains more than 2.1 million historical and current records on whale catches.

Under the IWC, a moratorium on commercial whaling has been in place since the mid 1980s. However, Norway, Iceland and Japan continue to practice whaling, catching a total of 999 minke, bryde’s, sei and fin whales combined in 2022.

The concept for WhaleVis emerged out of the University of Washington’s ‘Computing for the Environment’ initiative, bringing together computer and climate scientists.

Professor Trevor Branch, a co-author from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, was working with the IWC data set and wanted help visualizing it.

“Being able to visualize the data like this helps us answer a huge number of questions,” he says. 

“For example, it is difficult to separate two of the subspecies of blue whales — massive Antarctic blue whales and pygmy blue whales that are about 20 feet shorter. Visualizing the expeditions that caught big whales versus pygmies lets us clearly and quickly see the boundary between those two subspecies.”

To reduce the computing power needed to render millions of data points online, the researchers aggregated catches into clusters, based on size of catch and species.

Scientists can access the interactive map online for their research, with permission from the IWC.

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