Whale watching: you're out there on the water with salt spray in your face and wind in your hair, waiting for a gigantic sea mammal to surface and do something splashy. It seems like a touristy thing to do, but scientists actually track whale populations from that very same vantage point. Sea level's cool and all, but wouldn't it be awesome to monitor whales—FROM SPACE?? You're damn right it would, and now it's actually happening.
The southern right whale loves chilling in the calm waters of Golfo Nuevo, a gulf off Argentina; they're slow-moving surface-dwellers, which made them ideal candidates for this first foray into a new counting method, published in a recent paper by PLOS One.
The study was conducted using one massive, ultra hi-res shot taken in 2012 by the WorldView2 satellite. Viewing different wavelengths of that 70-square-mile patch revealed different depths—up to 50 feet below the surface—and a whole bunch of whales. Probably.
See, it gets a bit tricky because there's (obviously) a difference between a whale, a possible whale, a probable whale, and a whale-shape—all of which were cited, but none of which can be totally confirmed as an actual, real-life specimen.
The Los Angeles Times points out that anything from a big rock to a bird flock could be mistaken in the mix; it all feels very Star Trek IV to me, so I honestly wouldn't be surprised if a splotchy probable Spock shows up swimming around in these pics at some point.
A probable right whale shown in each of the eight multispectral bands and the panchromatic band of the WorldView2 data
What this lacks in clarity it makes up for in potential, however. The scientists believe that, as the tech evolves and refines, it will be possible to make more positive IDs. [Los Angeles Times, PLOS One]