The potential of satellite imagery for surveying whales
The emergence of very high-resolution (VHR) satellite imagery (less than 1 m spatial resolution) is creating new opportunities within the fields of ecology and conservation biology. The advancement of sub-meter resolution imagery has provided greater confidence in the detection and identification of features on the ground, broadening the realm of possible research questions. To date, VHR imagery studies have largely focused on terrestrial environments; however, there has been incremental progress in the last two decades for using this technology to detect cetaceans. With advances in computational power and sensor resolution, the feasibility of broad-scale VHR ocean surveys using VHR satellite imagery with automated detection and classification processes has increased. Initial attempts at automated surveys are showing promising results, but further development is necessary to ensure reliability. Here we discuss the future directions in which VHR satellite imagery might be used to address urgent questions in whale conservation. We highlight the current challenges to automated detection and to extending the use of this technology to all oceans and various whale species. To achieve basin-scale marine surveys, currently not feasible with any traditional surveying methods (including boat-based and aerial surveys), future research requires a collaborative effort between biology, computation science, and engineering to overcome the present challenges to this platform’s use.