An initiative from Draper and New England Aquarium to “Count Whales From Space” was accepted at a global ocean conservation conference.

At the Our Ocean Conference in Oslo, Norway, the New England Aquarium of Boston, a global marine conservation organization, and Draper, a not-for-profit engineering innovation company in Cambridge, MA, announced a new partnership called “Counting Whales from Space.”

The commitment focuses on developing technology to detect large marine life in areas of the world that are difficult to survey using traditional techniques. Together, the two organizations will devote $1 million to this partnership to engineer new capabilities to monitor the numbers and types of large animals at the ocean’s surface. New England Aquarium President and CEO Vikki Spruill announced the commitment Thursday morning at the Our Ocean Conference.

Created by John Kerry while Secretary of State, the Our Ocean Conference is the Davos of the ocean world, bringing together conservationists from government, industry, research institutions, and civil society not only to learn, but also to act for a clean, healthy, and productive ocean. A distinguishing element of this conference is that programming is punctuated by declarations of actions—“commitments”—by governments, organizations, and businesses. Commitments must be voluntary, significant, measurable, and have a clear timeframe. Additionally, commitments must be accepted by the conference—not every commitment submitted is accepted.

The aim of the Aquarium/Draper commitment is to create a more efficient and comprehensive method to gather information about whales and other large marine animals in difficult-to-access, offshore ocean environments. Currently, the most common way to gather such information is via aerial surveys, which are expensive, frequently limited by bad weather, and often beyond the reach of small aircraft. Developing new technology that uses specially designed algorithms to process data from low orbit satellites could better inventory and monitor marine life populations in remote marine protected areas (MPAs).

Vikki Spruill at Our Oceans Conference 2019
New England Aquarium President and CEO Vikki Spruill at the Our Ocean Conference.

Draper will employ a multi-sensor fusion approach to quantify whale populations. Surveying whales by fusing data from multiple sources—including but not limited to satellites, sonar and synthetic aperture radar, combined with ocean state information such as currents, topography and weather—is expected to provide information on which the conservation community can act. Draper has a long history in integrating satellite imagery with other data sources to gain insights beyond standard application of remote sensing.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, located more than 200 miles east of Cape Cod, is a prime candidate to benefit from this technology. Currently, the Aquarium flies highly productive aerial surveys that reveal an amazing abundance and diversity of whale species there but is significantly limited by distance and cost.

aerial survey photos
An aerial survey image from the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument

Using the science generated by this technology, documenting the habitats of whales and other large marine animals could help justify the expansion of existing MPAs or the creation of new ones. Currently less than 10% of the world’s ocean is highly protected, but the scientific community is recommending increasing the target to safeguard 30% by 2030 to maintain a healthy ocean.

“We know that marine protected areas are a very effective tool to bolster the ocean’s resilience in the face of climate change and other human impacts,” said Vikki Spruill, President and CEO of the New England Aquarium. “This partnership combines the best conservation science with cutting-edge technology, so we can more effectively protect our planet’s greatest resource.”

Aquarium scientists over the past three decades have helped developed regulatory mechanisms that have significantly reduced human-caused mortalities in all large whale species. This new technology could much better inform government officials on how to more effectively and efficiently implement these measures for the benefit of all stakeholders, including the fishing, shipping and conservation communities and, ultimately, the whales.

This is the first ever commitment for both Draper and the Aquarium at the Our Ocean Conference and is the first step in a developing relationship to identify solutions and commit to action for a clean, healthy and productive ocean. Funding will be provided by philanthropists, trusts, grants and other contributors wishing to support this commitment.

ABOUT THE NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM: Since 1969, the New England Aquarium has been a catalyst for global change for our ocean. Through public engagement, commitment to marine animal conservation, leadership in education, innovative scientific research, and effective advocacy and partnerships, the Aquarium is dedicated to building a vital and vibrant ocean on this blue planet.

ABOUT DRAPER: At Draper, exciting things happen when new capabilities are imagined and created. Whether formulating a concept and developing each component to achieve a field-ready prototype or combining existing technologies in new ways, Draper engineers apply multidisciplinary approaches that deliver new capabilities to customers. As a not-for-profit engineering innovation company, Draper focuses on the design, development and deployment of advanced technological solutions for the world’s most challenging and important problems. Draper provides engineering solutions directly to government, industry and academia; work on teams as prime contractor or subcontractor; and participate as a collaborator in consortia. Draper also provides unbiased assessments of technology or systems designed or recommended by other organizations-custom designed, as well as commercial-off-the-shelf.

For more information, please contact: 

New England Aquarium: Media Relations, 617-877-6871,
Draper: Dan Dent, 617-258-2464 (O), 617-429-2883 (C),


Banner Image: A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf, photographed by
researchers during an aerial survey (Photo: New England Aquarium)