By John Macone
For the first time, it's possible to stand at the tips of Eastern Point or Stage Fort Park and know for sure whether there are whales swimming offshore — if you happen to have your iPhone or iPad with you.
A new "app" absorbs scientific data on whales as they traverse the offshore waters and plots their general location on an easy-to-read nautical map.
It's the first program of its type, said Jake Levenson, the marine biologist who helped design it.
"This has never been done before," said Levenson, 34, who lived for a few years in Gloucester and considers the coast off Cape Ann, Crane Beach and Plum Island as his favorite waters.
"We can take whale location information from multiple sources and make it easy to understand."
The free app, called WhaleAlert, hit Apple's iTunes store late last week, and already the program is proving to be a big hit. More than 5,000 people have downloaded the program, Levenson said.
The program utilizes various data to map out the location of whales. One source is the sound of whales communicating underwater, which is picked up by undersea microphones paid for by a liquefied natural gas company as a condition for federal government permission to build the one of the offshore LNG ports off Gloucester. The microphones are located in shipping channels in Massachusetts Bay, south of Cape Ann.
It also uses information gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks whale movements with aircraft and ships, and whose Northeast regional headquarters are based in Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial Park.
The federal agency monitors whales as they move through local waters, such as the feeding grounds of Jeffrey's Ledge about 25 miles offshore, and Ipswich Bay, which laps against Gloucester and Rockport's northernmost shores. But NOAA's information is highly technical, and isn't easy for the average person to understand. The app translates it onto a map.
Right whales are well into their annual migration route right now. They winter off Florida and in springtime head up the East Coast toward their summer feeding grounds in Canada's Bay of Fundy and beyond.
A few weeks ago, several whales were seen off the outermost tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown. Within the past few days, pods have been spotted — and mapped by the app — off Cape Ann as well.
It's possible for whales to come in fairly close to the waters off Cape Ann and Newburyport. Their movements are tied to their food sources, said Levenson, which makes the precise movement unpredictable.
"You never know what's going to happen," he said.
The app doesn't pinpoint the precise location of individual whales. Instead, it maps out a grid area in which whale activity has been reported. The grid areas are often a few square miles.
The app was developed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. It's designed primarily to alert mariners to the location of endangered right whales in order to avoid collisions.
Large ships are required to alert authorities when they enter an area where endangered whales are known to be, and ships in those zones can't go faster than 10 knots, which is 11.5 mph.
But you don't have to be a ship captain to use it. Anyone with an iPhone or iPad can access the program and track the general location of whale pods.
"This is bringing conservation into the 21st century," Levenson said. "The challenge for us has been can we make information from multiple sources easy to understand."
John Macone is editor of the Times' sister paper, The Daily News of Newburyport. He can be reached at email@example.com.