UK scientists have demonstrated the practicality of counting whales from space.
The researchers, from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), have been using the highest resolution satellite pictures available.
Even when taken from 620km up, this imagery is sharp enough to capture the distinctive shapes of different species.
The team will soon conduct an audit of fin whales in the Mediterranean.
The first-of-its-kind assessment will be partly automated by employing a computer program to search through the satellite data.
Waters north of Corsica, known as the Ligurian Sea, are a protected area for cetaceans, and the regional authorities want to understand better the animals′ movements in relation to shipping to try to avoid collisions.
Previous studies have played with the idea of spotting whales from orbit, but with limited success.
This new approach from BAS has drawn on imagery from the WorldView-3 spacecraft operated by the American company DigitalGloble.
WorldView-3 is able to discern things at the Earth′s surface as small as 31cm across. Only restricted military systems see finer detail.
"Satellites have improved so much with their spatial resolution," explained Hannah Cubaynes, who is affiliated to both Cambridge University and BAS. "For the first time we′ve been able to see features that are truly distinctive of whales, such as their flippers and flukes."