Even at a sturdy 70 tons, the North Atlantic right whale is no match for the huge ships that cross its path carrying cargo, passengers and the threat of lethal collisions.
Now, a new app for the iPad or iPhone aims to help mariners avoid the rare whales so they don't strike them.
The Whale Alert app takes information from underwater microphones to locate the whales in real time, which helps ships in New England waters avoid the species' estimated 550 remaining whales.
The app also uses the GPS feature on iPads or iPhones to alert mariners if they're entering areas where right whales were spotted, or are known to frequent, along their migratory route from Florida to Maine. Those zones have mandatory or voluntary speed restrictions.
Preventing even one fatal ship strike can have a lasting effect on the right whale population.
"Right whales are being run over by large ships and killed, but we can save them," said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which led the app's development.
The North Atlantic right whale was hunted to near extinction in the late 18th century and has struggled since.
The animal, which can grow to 55 feet in length, is vulnerable to ship strikes because it can be difficult to see as it feeds on plankton slicks near the surface. It's also oblivious to its surroundings while eating.
Since the 1970s, an average of two North Atlantic right whales have been killed annually by ship strikes, though there has been one death in each of the past two years, said Greg Silber, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
After an increase in strikes in the mid-2000s, a host of measures were adopted to protect the whale.
For instance, vessels longer than 65 feet must slow to 10 knots in areas the whales frequent during certain seasons. Violators have been fined as much as $92,000.
Mariners are also asked to voluntarily slow down in zones where right whales were recently spotted. And any vessel greater than 300 gross tons must report to NOAA when they enter designated right whale areas up and down the East Coast.
Whale Alert aims to make it easier for navigators to be aware of the various whale restrictions.
Previously, ships often received that information via clunky technologies such as fax machines, VHF transmission, or not at all because their equipment was outdated.
But vessels with the app are alerted when they enter areas with right whale restrictions (with a whale song sound effect), and mariners can click on the iPad to find out the specific regulations.
For now, the app can only locate the whales' real-time location off New England because it's the only region where special acoustic buoys are installed.
The 13 buoys, placed along a shipping lane into Boston Harbor and in Cape Cod Bay, can detect the right whales within a five-mile radius by listening for their distinctive songs.
Once a whale's presence has been confirmed, its location appears on the app's digital nautical chart and the captain knows to be vigilant in that area.
"The whales now have a voice," said Christopher Clark, a Cornell University scientist who led development of the acoustic monitoring system and worked on the app. "We are eavesdropping on the social network of whales."
The multimillion-dollar acoustic system has been in operation for several years. But before the app, when Cornell researchers confirmed a right whale had been detected, they had let any liquefied natural gas tankers in the area know by phone, Clark said. Now, vessels from container ships to pleasure boats can know quickly through the app.
The app is free, but the cost for vessels is about $600 to $700 for the iPad and the equipment to receive the needed wireless signal.
The app cost about $100,000 to develop, said Brad Winney of Delray Beach, Fla.-based EarthNC Mobile, which did the technical work on it.
Some cruise lines and other vessels have committed to the app, but its effectiveness depends on broad use.
"This is no good, unless the maritime community knows it exists," said Dave Wiley of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, who worked on the app.
Besides holding a press unveiling this past week at the Boston Fish Pier, agencies and individuals are talking up the app to contacts in the maritime industry.
Kathy Metcalf of the Chamber of Shipping of America, a shipping industry group that wasn't involved in the project, called the app fantastic, and said she "can't imagine a reason" why any mariner or boat owner wouldn't want it.
The cost is "beans," Metcalf said, and the benefits are substantial. By locating where whales are, and detailing any restrictions in effect to protect the animals, the app enhances a mariner's general awareness of the situation at sea, she said.
"If you don't want that, you've got problems," Metcalf said. "No one on a ship wants to hit anything in the water, whale or otherwise."