New iPhone travel app aims to save right whales from Angry Ships

NOAA app pinpoints endangered right whales so ships can steer around them

Travel apps have been among the most popular on smartphones since the beginning, which only makes sense.

There's nothing better than a well-designed smartphone app to reduce the weight of the Batman utility belt that pulls down your pants by holding up a herd of separate devices to provide functions we've forgotten or prefer not to do the old-fashioned way.

Without Internet connections to maps and GPS directions, many geeks would get lost in physical space; without to-do lists, calendars and contact info many disappear into work Limbo every time they walked away from the laptops on their desks.

Without text, chat, games social networking and news the rest would lose touch with the clans, pods and tribes that make up their social circles and eventually die of boredom hours-long airport layovers, long-delayed meetings or red lights that seem to go on forever.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's idea of what information a traveler needs may be a little different than most road warriors.

The maps it distributes tend not to include a lot of land area, for example.

And when it put out its first smartphone app, the ad hoc alerts and points of interest it included had nothing to do with finding fast food, getting gas or filling up the fuel tank.

NOAA's first smartphone app, Whale Alert, keeps track of right whales swimming off the coast of Massachusetts, where most right-whale strikes occur.

Right whales are a species of huge, unattractive baleen whale that range up and down the U.S. Atlantic coast, moving south to the coast of Georgia and Florida to calve, but return in summer to the rich off the coast of New England to fatten themselves up and play the whale version of Frogger amid the busy shipping lanes.

Right whale, wrong sense of whether ship or whale should be intimidated by impending collisions

Right whales are either oblivious to or unable to care about the approach of giant ships as they swim slowly just far enough below the surface to be invisible, but not deep enough to stay out of danger.

There are only about 400 right whales still living in the Atlantic, which makes them the most endangered whale on earth.

(Right whales got their name from whalers during the 1800s, who assumed their huge size (70 tons), low speed, convenient location and incredible stupidity made them the "right" whale for ships to hunt that didn't want to spend two or three years circling the globe to hunt sperm, gray and blue whales.)

helps the constant stream of large fishing boats, freighters, tankers and container ships prove that, at sea, right of way belongs to the moving object weighing hundreds or thousands of tons, not the 70 tons or so the adult right whales are packing.

There are only a few hundred right whales left in the wild; of the 67 found dead between 1970 and 2007, 24 had been killed by collisions with ships.

To reduce the damage, U.S. shippers and coastal authorities changed shipping lanes, enforce rules that force ships to avoid right whales by at least 500 yards and report any they spot so NOAA and the Coast Guard can notify ships in the where to watch for vulnerable whales and what areas to avoid.

NOAA's North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Advisory System is a simple interface for ship captains looking for potential obstacles, but the web-based app is hard to bring up on the bridge and doesn't issue alerts on its own based on the ship's location and the best real-time reports of whale locations.

Whale Alert provides a graphical map of the U.S. east coast with icons showing the location of all reported sightings of right whales.

It gets the information both from reports from boats in the area and from sonar buoys on the floor of Boston Harbor and other areas up and down the East Coast.

It uses the phone's GPS function to identify the ship's location and, when necessary, give directions for how to avoid an area of heavy sightings.

It is designed for "mariners," which means anyone on a boat. It is aimed at the officers of large cargo or container ships, but is simple and cheap enough (it's free) for recreational boaters or hobbyists as well.

"Right whales need dramatic conservation progress to survive, according to a quote in NOAA's announcement from Patrick Ramage, global whale director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which helped develop the app." This new iPad app gives these whales a fighting chance."

There is no Android version yet, and none of the participants has commented on whether driving 90,000-ton ships while reading or entering data on the Whale Alert app counts as driving-and-texting in shipping terms.

The iPhone and iPad versions can be downloaded here, under the word "download," not "thar she blows," however much more appropriate that might have seemed.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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