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Mapping whales from space​

SPACEWHALE is using satellite imagery and AI to find out more about where whales live and travel.


Using satellite imagery to observe whales, researchers can now discover, analyse and report in weeks rather than decades and explore remote areas they couldn’t reach before.

Connected by Deloitte’s open innovation space-tech programme Gravity Challenge, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) is working with the company BioConsult SH and their tech service SPACEWHALE to protect marine mammals.


It’s often said we know more about what’s happening in space than the deep blue sea. But what if one holds the key to the other? 

So much of the ocean is yet to be explored. It’s probably why we’re so fascinated with programmes like Blue Planet. We all want a rare glimpse of the phenomena that live underwater.  

But understanding the ocean is more than just curiosity. It’s essential for our survival.  

The ocean supplies half of the oxygen produced on the planet. Literally every other breath we take is dependent on having a healthy ocean. And a healthy ocean wouldn’t be possible without whales. 

“Whales play a huge role in helping the ocean absorb carbon and mitigate the threat of climate and ecological breakdown,” says Chris Butler-Stroud, CEO of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), one of Deloitte’s charity partners.  

In case you didn’t already know, nutrient-rich whale poo is the key ingredient. It fertilises phytoplankton that produces 50 per cent of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 30 per cent of human-generated carbon in the process. 

“WDC has been campaigning to save the whales for decades,” continues Chris. “What few people realised until recently was just how much we need whales to save us.” 

A wider lens

Thankfully, we’ve all come a long way from the days of widespread commercial whale hunting. But global warming, pollution and human activity at sea means whales are still endangered.

A big part of WDC’s work is safeguarding marine mammals, using data to help inform governments on what areas should become Marine Protected Areas.

To do this, they need to understand whales’ habits better: what they’re eating, what routes they take when migrating and how their numbers are fluctuating.

As you’d expect, tracking whales and exploring life under the ocean can be expensive and difficult. And a major challenge researchers face is gathering data quickly enough to prevent further damage to whales with the urgency that’s needed.

But as space-tech becomes more sophisticated, help has come from a somewhat unlikely place. Satellites in the sky are broadening the horizons for marine research.

“The fate of whales may well lie, not in the ocean, not in vast halls where policymakers debate laws to protect them, but in the night sky.

“Thankfully, there is a new weapon in our conservation arsenal, and we are just beginning to understand how powerful that weapon might be. It’s satellites.”  

Chris Vick
Director of Strategic Development, WDC

Before and after space tech

Typically, when researching whale activity, researchers observe whales from ships and capture images via camera-rigged planes. Following transect lines – the lines that cut through the natural landscape – they’ve been limited by smaller sample areas. With lower resolution, more pixellated satellite images, it is harder to detect the whales due to their size.


Now, SPACEWHALE uses very high-resolution (VHR) satellite images to spot whales. Researchers can get clearer pictures of a larger surface area, which they use to create more accurate distribution maps and share analyses.


SPACEWHALE’s AI algorithm now automates and speeds up the process, detecting whales with over 90 per cent accuracy. A human expert review team conducts a quality assurance check to make the final call.

Connecting skills and talents

“WDC is one of Deloitte’s charity partners, who participated in the Gravity Challenge - our open innovation space-tech programme,” explains Deloitte’s Gravity Challenge UK delivery lead, Mollie Martin.

Through the challenge, we find and connect experts who can help each other and, in this case, the planet too. Organisations pose challenges that space-tech might just be able to solve and we match them with the right advanced space-tech experts for their specific challenge.

“To help policy makers, researchers and others learn more about protecting whales, WDC wanted to research and understand the abundance of marine mammals more efficiently,” Mollie continues. “And to explore uses of remote-sensing technology in areas where it’s difficult to do manual observations.”

Making the connection between WDC and independent research and consulting company BioConsult SH, who had developed the SPACEWHALE service, has transformed WDC’s work.

“As a result of the project, we can now use VHR satellite imagery, and the latest AI tools, to detect whales across the seas,” continues Chris.

“We’ve been blown away by Deloitte’s passion and commitment for our work. Having them onboard brings skills and knowledge that’s scaling up our ambitions for protecting whales and dolphins around the world.”

“What’s exciting about this project is being able to bring the right people together to experiment with game-changing technology than can help us protect our natural ecosystems.


“SPACEWHALE and WDC’s joint study brings together people with so much knowledge in their fields – whether that’s tech or whales. The project is about connecting the dots between them and sparking new magic.


“There’s so much more potential for space-tech to help tackle climate change. It’s just one example of the new opportunities it’s opening up across lots of industries.”


Mollie Martin

Gravity Challenge UK delivery lead

2023 Annual Review

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