There are currently fewer than 80 Southern Resident Killer Whales left in North America's Pacific Northwest, and unfortunately boat collisions with them are on the rise. In order to address the problem, scientists are now looking to artificially-intelligent infrared cameras.

Southern Residents are a distinct sub-population of killer whales (aka orcas), found mainly off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Their numbers plummeted in past decades, due to shootings by fishermen and live capture for marine parks. Although their numbers rose in the 90s, they have since declined once again, likely due to pollution and/or lack of salmon to feed upon. As of this March, only 75 of the animals were left.

A large percentage of the boat collisions with the orcas occur in British Columbia's Gulf Islands, where a growing number of watercraft share limited space in narrow channels with the endangered animals. When the strikes do occur, the orcas are often seriously injured or even killed, while passengers in smaller craft may also get hurt.

Such accidents would presumably be less likely to happen, however, if boat operators knew where the killer whales were currently located.

To that end, scientists from the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are investigating the use of thermal infrared cameras, that detect the heat of the animals' bodies as they surface to breath. Because boats also have a detectable heat signature, a linked computer analyzes the video utilizing artificial intelligence-based algorithms – these have been "trained" to differentiate between infrared images of watercraft and killer whales. When the latter is detected, its location is noted.

The system is about to be tested on British Columbia's Galiano Island, where cameras are being installed at a ferry terminal to monitor the mile-wide entrance to a busy strait. Over a one-year period, those cameras will be able to detect orcas day and night, providing around-the-clock alerts to watercraft operators. An acoustic orca-monitoring system is already in use at that same location, which the infrared technology is intended to complement.

"This work is only one part of the overall solution to preventing vessel strikes," says Woods Hole's Dan Zitterbart, who is leading the research. "But if the detection is effective enough, we could eventually think about mounting infrared cameras directly on the bow of ferry ships and having a real-time feedback loop where mariners are alerted to slow down if whales are present."

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