Skip to main content
A California sea lion with a small satellite tracking device on its back runs through the sand.
News Update

Conservation Technology: 5 Innovations In Ocean Health

July 9, 2024
  • Species conservation
  • Entanglement
  • Ocean trash
  • Population monitoring

As a global leader in marine mammal conservation, The Marine Mammal Center is conducting vital research and developing innovative techniques to address alarming ocean health concerns. With ocean conditions rapidly changing, our work is more important than ever—and technology is reshaping how we approach critical conservation efforts.  

Thanks to support from people like you, we are utilizing groundbreaking tools and strategies to better understand and safeguard marine mammals. Our experts are monitoring animals across the farthest stretches of the ocean using satellite tags and drones. We designed an acoustic dart to help us disentangle sea lions. Artificial intelligence is gathering key data to reduce ship strikes on whales. State-of-the-art diagnostic tools provide urgent insights into an animal’s health.  

Advancements like these enable us to safely and effectively protect more marine mammals, and we work closely with partners to expand our impact around the world. While much of this work is about giving individual animals the care they need for the best possible second chance, it is also about populations as a whole, the health of our ocean and human health. 

Read on for a deep dive into five of the Center’s cutting-edge conservation technologies that are making a powerful difference to protect wildlife and our shared ocean environment.  

Satellite Tags Allow Scientists to Monitor Released Patients in the Wild

While all marine mammals that recover at our hospital receive bright orange flipper tags so we can identify them if they are spotted again in the wild, some patients also receive additional high-tech tracking devices such as satellite tags.  

These small, temporary devices are attached to the animal’s fur with a special glue before they are released, allowing our experts to remotely track their movements and diving behaviors via satellite. As this conservation technology enables us to monitor a patient’s progress after they are released, we can improve our understanding of long-term prognoses for animals affected by diseases such as Sarcocystis. 

After attaching a satellite tag to California sea lion Creighton and releasing her back to the wild, our experts tracked her movements to Half Moon Bay, the Farallones, Año Nuevo Island and Chimney Rock.

As a vital conservation tool, satellite tags may be attached to animals from threatened and endangered populations, including Guadalupe fur seals and Hawaiian monk seals. By tracking species across the coast and deep into the sea, we are able to learn more about how the animals use their ocean environment and help inform critical efforts to protect them.

Scientists attach satellite tracking conservation technology to the back of a Guadalupe fur seal during a veterinary exam.
Experts at The Marine Mammal Center attach a satellite tag to a threatened Guadalupe fur seal before its release back to the wild. Photo by Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center / NOAA permit #18786

Acoustic Darts Can Track and Sedate Entangled Marine Mammals

Increased amounts of trash are being found in the ocean, creating the very serious threat of entanglement for countless marine mammals. Using specialized tools and techniques, our experts rescue animals caught in life-threatening entanglements, like lost or discarded fishing gear, plastic packing straps and other pieces of trash.  

In addition to using a rescue net, the Center’s experts are highly trained and authorized under our response permit by NOAA to utilize an innovative darting method we designed for high-risk disentanglement efforts. Often by boat, a trained responder safely launches a special dart that sedates the entangled animal and includes an acoustic tracking device should it escape into the water.  

A California sea lion with a red dart in its shoulder is on a dock in front of a marine mammal rescue team on a boat.
Our trained experts safely launched a special dart to sedate and track Pinger, a California sea lion entangled in ocean trash. Photo by Oulana Dobrin © The Marine Mammal Center

This innovation allows the sea lion needing rescue to be sedated enough to not be a danger to the rescue team, but it will still rise to the surface to take a breath whenever it needs one. While the sea lion is sedated, a series of acoustic “pings” from the dart allows our responders to keep track of the animal until it can be netted from the water. Once the animal is safely disentangled, our experts can reverse the sedation and release it back to the wild. 

The Center’s experience and expertise responding to entangled marine mammals is being applied on a global scale. In fact, we sent experts and equipment to Mexico to lead workshops for local government agencies and other responders on how to use our darting technique to rescue entangled sea lions. We also shared this conservation technology with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and participated in the first successful seal rescue on the East Coast using remote sedation. 

AI Underwater-Listening Tool Helps Reduce Ship Strikes With Whales

Whales are not only awe-inspiring but also vital for the health of our marine ecosystems. We are fortunate to witness numerous whale species in San Francisco Bay and offshore in the Gulf of the Farallones. However, as whale migration paths and feeding areas increasingly intersect with vessel traffic and busy shipping lanes, the risk of ship strike rises and poses a significant threat to large whales. This underscores the urgent need for conservation efforts aimed at minimizing the risk of ship strikes and protecting these magnificent animals. 

In partnership with the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, we deployed Whale Safe San Francisco, a technology-based mapping and analysis system designed to help prevent whale-ship collisions. This unique conservation technology utilizes an acoustic buoy that continuously monitors ocean noise through an underwater microphone. An artificial intelligence system is then able to detect blue, fin and humpback whale vocalizations in near-real-time and transmit the results via satellite to scientists who confirm the detection before it is displayed on the website 

A yellow buoy floats in the water as part of Whale Safe conservation technology.
The acoustic buoy uses an underwater microphone and an AI-enabled system to detect whale vocalizations. Photo by Bekah Lane © The Marine Mammal Center

In addition to using this acoustic monitoring technology, Whale Safe integrates a blue whale habitat model to show where the blue whales are likely to go, as well as whale sightings reported by trained naturalists and community scientists like you to determine a whale presence rating (low, medium, high, very high). Prior to departure, a ship captain can look at the whale presence rating and whale sightings to plan their transit accordingly. Lastly, Whale Safe provides vessel analytics on cooperation levels with voluntary speed reductions designed to reduce ship strikes and lethality of ship strikes, along with reducing air emissions and ocean noise. 

Two whale tails surface above the water in front of a ship.

Drones Help Experts Monitor Whales and Respond to Entanglements

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are a revolutionary tool in wildlife conservation that help scientists collect information from hard-to-reach locations—including aerial views of whales. As a leading first responder to whales entangled in ocean trash, our expert team uses drones with a camera attached to document the entanglements and help responders determine the best course of action to free the whales.  

Some entanglements can be shed by the whale on its own, but others require intervention from trained and permitted teams. Drone documentation of whale entanglement is a science that informs vital prevention efforts. 

As the Center’s researchers conduct scientific studies to monitor whales and find solutions to critical threats, we can also use drones to track animals and conduct health assessments. The boats we use to observe cetaceans can be loud, but large whales generally do not react to drones at the heights we operate. Not only does this unique conservation technology allow our experts to see behaviors not visible by boat, but it also minimizes noise and disturbance while gathering critical data.

As smaller marine mammals and birds can be disturbed by drones, it is important to work with both wildlife experts and experienced drone pilots when using this technology in nature. The Center’s cetacean experts are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to pilot drones and permitted by NOAA to operate them near marine wildlife as part of our conservation efforts. 

Diagnostic Tools Like Portable X-Rays Provide Insights to Marine Mammal Health

As the world’s largest marine mammal hospital, the Center cares for an extraordinary number of animals—not just in the number of patients, but also in the variety of species and medical conditions. Using cutting-edge technology, our veterinary team takes radiographs (X-rays), performs ultrasound and endoscopic procedures, and uses EEGs to diagnose problems.  

With entanglement and ingestion of ocean trash being a leading cause of death for endangered Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands, quick diagnostic testing is crucial for the species’ survival. At Ke Kai Ola, our hospital on Hawai‘i Island, conservation technologies like our portable X-ray machine have proved critical in identifying hook ingestions, as well as other life-threatening ailments.  

Two veterinarians hold a yellow radiograph machine above a Hawaiian monk seal during its rehabilitation.
Our experts hold the portable X-ray machine during a Hawaiian monk seal’s radiograph exam. Photo by Heather Stoker © The Marine Mammal Center / NOAA permit #18786

Our veterinary experts can bring the portable X-ray machine directly to the rescued seal’s pen to look inside its body, reducing the need to handle and transport the animal. The waterproof machine takes radiographs wirelessly and then transmits them digitally to a computer screen, providing us with immediate visual clues about an animal's health. If an ingested fishing hook or other gear is detected, our veterinarians can take the necessary steps to safely remove it and give the animal a second chance at life.

A radiograph (X-ray) image of a fishing hook lodged in a Hawaiian monk seal’s esophagus.
The Center’s veterinary team took a series of X-rays confirming the presence of a fishing hook lodged in Hawaiian monk seal RS10’s esophagus. Photo © The Marine Mammal Center / NOAA permit #24359

Innovations in ocean health are made possible thanks to caring people like you. 

Give Today

Conservation Technology at The Marine Mammal Center

Yes, I want to save a life!

Yes, I want to save a life!

You’ll be giving sick and injured animals the best possible care at the Center’s state-of-the-art hospital. With your gift today, you are giving a patient a second chance at life in the wild.

  • $35 You'll buy food for a hungry animal
  • $45 You'll provide life-saving medical care
  • $65 You'll make second chances possible

See Our Latest News

species conservation
ocean trash
population monitoring
California Sea Lion
Guadalupe Fur Seal
Hawaiian Monk Seal
Gray Whale