Aurora, a 20-year-old beluga whale, swims with her calf after giving birth. Cetaceans are mammals. They give birth to live young. (AP/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Aurora, a 20-year-old beluga whale, swims with her calf after giving birth. Cetaceans are mammals. They give birth to live young. (AP/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Scientists will use drones to study these endangered Maui dolphins. (Will Rayment/WWF-New Zealand)

Scientists will use drones to study these endangered Maui dolphins. (Will Rayment/WWF-New Zealand)

Each whale’s fluke is unique.

Each whale’s fluke is unique.

Lisa Steiner loves learning about whales. She uses AI to study photos of whale tales—and citizen scientists can help. (Amazon)

Lisa Steiner loves learning about whales. She uses AI to study photos of whale tales—and citizen scientists can help. (Amazon)

There are very few vaquita marina dolphins left. New rules in Mexico may hurt them. (United Nations)

There are very few vaquita marina dolphins left. New rules in Mexico may hurt them. (United Nations)

What Is a Cetacean?

Posted: May 1, 2021

A cetacean is one of several kinds of marine (water) mammals. Cetaceans live their entire lives in water. They breathe air through a blowhole. They have flippers and a tail that makes some people mistake them for fish, but they are not fish. A fish tail is usually vertical. A cetacean tail is horizontal. The animal moves its tail up and down to help it plow quickly through water. Cetaceans give birth to live young and feed them milk. Dolphins, whales, and porpoises are all cetaceans. Many cetacean populations around the world are threatened. Scientists and conservationists try to help.

Drones Track Dolphins

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a dolphin-tracking drone! New Zealand’s endangered Maui dolphins swim just below the ocean surface in a small stretch of ocean. They are easy to spot with a drone. Computers on remote-controlled drones track the dolphins without the marine mammals even knowing it. The drones are part of a government project to protect these cetaceans. Only about 63 Maui dolphins older than one year of age are still living. Scientists will use the drones to look for dolphin habitats, count pod sizes, and study the animals’ behaviors.

Computers Study Whales

Lisa Steiner calls herself a sperm whale geek. She’s been photographing whale flukes for 35 years. A fluke is the unique tail of a cetacean. In some ways, a fluke is like a whale’s fingerprint. No two are the same! Ms. Steiner uses her photos to study whales. Lately, new technology is making her job easier.

The Fluketracker is a computer program. It uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to look for details in Ms. Steiner’s fluke photos. The program knows what a tail looks like and what makes it unique. She wants citizen scientists to upload their own marine life photos into the Fluketracker. That would be fun AND help scientific research!     

Porpoise Loses Habitat

Little vaquita marina dolphins are the world’s most endangered marine mammal. There may be as few as only 10 vaquita left. They live in one place on Earth––the Sea of Cortez by Mexico. The Mexican government has bad news. Vaquitas may lose their habitat. Dangerous gill nets could be allowed in areas where they live. The porpoises can get trapped in the nets. That’s why they’ve been banned in some areas––until now. Mexican officials will decide about allowing the nets after listening to feedback from the public. Could technology somehow help these porpoises survive?