Could a computer simulator help save endangered beluga whales?

Researchers in Quebec are hoping a computer simulator that resembles a video game can help save the endangered St. Lawrence beluga whales.

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The project, which received funding from the provincial government this week, allows scientists to input known data about both whales and ships to see how they’ll interact under different conditions.

The model allows researchers to test out different scenarios by adjusting the number of whales, as well as factors such as ship speed and engine volume, to find the best way to minimize risk, according to the professor in charge of the study.

“From a visual standpoint, it looks like a video game,” Clement Chion, professor at l’Universite du Quebec en Outaouais, said in a phone interview.

“You see the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay rivers in 3D, where each whale is represented as a separate entity, and each boat as well, and we move them around according to rules based on real data gathered on boat and whale behaviour.”

Chion said the simulator was originally developed about 10 years ago in order to minimize collisions between large whales and ships.

Now, the team is working to add a new dimension that will allow them to calculate each ship’s “acoustic footprint” to figure out how to reduce the impact of engine noise on the sensitive mammals.

It will also add data about belugas, which have highly-developed social behaviours and a “much more complex use of their habitat” than the large whales that were originally included in the simulator, he said.

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