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Bermuda eyed for AI whale research project

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From left, Carol Hammond, Kim Hammond, gorilla veterinarian and founder of the Falls Road Animal Hospital, Camilla Stringer, education activities co-ordinator at the Bermuda Zoological Society, Andrew Stevenson, whale researcher and founder of Whales Bermuda, and Emily Andrew, crew member for Endurance (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

An environmental philanthropist and veterinarian with a passion for animal welfare wants to use artificial intelligence to explore the lives of Bermuda’s migrating humpback whales.

Kim Hammond, who has worked as a vet with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, the Congo and Uganda, and founded the Falls Road Animal Hospital in his native Baltimore, is a board member of the Atlantic Conservation Partnership, a sister organisation to the Bermuda Zoological Society.

He recently visited Bermuda with his wife, Carol, to conduct first-hand research of the whales aboard the BZS education vessel Endurance along with Andrew Stevenson, whale researcher and founder of Whales Bermuda.

Whale watching (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Dr Hammond, a board member of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, said it was his intention to observe the whales to accurately assess any challenges and needs as part of ACP’s continued conservation work in Bermuda.

He reached out to Ian Walker, the principal curator at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, and a member of the ACP board of directors.

Dr Walker helped to organise two whale-watching trips off the South Shore of the island.

The Royal Gazette was invited to join Dr Hammond on one of the trips last Wednesday.

Dr Hammond said: “I see a huge opportunity right now to bring AI into the data that we have. We have scientists here who have 20 years or more of data, and that data is difficult to put into perspective.

“From a veterinarian standpoint, I want to know their health, I want to know if they propagate, if they are still propagating, if the numbers are increasing or decreasing.

“That is the type of basic research I want to determine. In this strange environment, with all the cruise ships, all of the sewage and stuff that is being expelled including sound, is it having a negative impact on these whales?”

Mr Stevenson founded Whales Bermuda in 2006 and has since identified more than 2,000 individual visiting whales through the distinct marks on their tails, or flukes as they are also known.

His team tracks and documents humpback activity using underwater and aerial video footage as well as underwater hydrophone recordings.

He said Whales Bermuda had conducted research showing that Bermuda was not only a transitory corridor for the whales and that the open ocean was as important to them as their feeding and breeding grounds.

Mr Stevenson said that the whales also feed here opportunistically and nurse their calves.

His latest paper was documented in the Nature journal showing evidence of the whales inflating their oral pouch and rubbing against the sea floor to exfoliate and remove lice.

The Sargasso Sea Commission has collaborated with his cetacean project as part of its ongoing stewardship role of the open ocean ecosystem

Dr Hammond began discussions with Mr Stevenson about the possibilities of using AI to analyse Mr Stevenson’s catalogue of data.

Whale watching (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

He added: “I feel pretty strongly about providing funding, identifying research needs and supporting the researchers who have good track records, establishing certain research objectives and reaching them.

“I am part of ACP and we are a group of very energetic, enthusiastic people who meet regularly and support projects, support the aquarium and BZS.

“I have begun to tell people, ‘let’s figure out how we can incorporate AI’. I have a lot of friends around the perimeter that are going to help us who have technical expertise with AI.

“Roy Heisler and I have worked on the gorillas for 15 years. He has helped me write books and assemble all the catalogues. He is very proficient with AI.

“We have 500 hospitals that I am part of. I asked AI to write a newsletter for each of the 500 hospitals and they are all across the United states. In three minutes, AI wrote 500 custom newsletters that were based on location and climate, and they were really good.

“We could do that with the whales – we can take all of this data and put it into AI. The purpose is to make it useable.

“AI is going to be able to assemble the data in a useable form but also do it at speeds that we can’t do it, it will do it instantly.”

Whale watching (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
A day with the whales

The weather co-operated beautifully on the day of our whale-watching trip with calm waters and clear skies.

Whale researcher Andrew Stevenson told Kim Hammond, who was visiting the island to establish an AI-based research project, that there were only a few select days in a year that the weather conditions were so favourable for seeking them out.

We headed out to the south-west of the island towards Sally Tuckers, a fishing ground seven miles away that whales tend to visit.

The gentle giants graced us with their presence throughout the long, eight-hour trip, including distant breaches, fin slapping and even a close encounter when one popped up a little way off the bow of the boat.

Those on the boat who had not seen the whales before were completely overcome with excitement.

One memorable moment was when a whale known as Candle showed up, so named because its fluke has a black mark resembling a lit candle.

It features in Mr Stevenson’s film Where the Whales Sing alongside his most beloved of all whales, who he nicknamed Magical Whale.

Candle has been to Bermuda 13 times and was first identified by Hal Whitehead off Labrador in 1976, 48 years ago.

The whale season in Bermuda is beginning to wrap up but the whales are still out there.

It has been a slow season owing to the poor weather conditions but there are still a few weeks left that they might be sighted.

It is well worth the effort — if you are lucky enough to encounter them.

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Published April 22, 2024 at 7:54 am (Updated April 22, 2024 at 9:14 am)

Bermuda eyed for AI whale research project

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