The Project


The Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals is a special marine protected area in the north-western Mediterranean Sea. It is located between Liguria, France and Sardinia and covers an area of around 90 000 km2. The sanctuary is the most important breeding and feeding site for cetacean populations living in the Mediterranean Sea and thus crucial for their well-being. Distinct ecological and sea floor conditions in the sanctuary mean that primary production (the creation of organic compounds through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis) in the area is very high and supports a diversified food chain.

The unique seabed features in the area, such as canyons, attract a large number of sperm whales that often emerge near the coast. Major commercial, tourist and industrial sites are also located in the area and marine traffic (e.g. passenger, cargo and fishing boats) increases particularly during the summer, when the presence of sperm whales is higher. Collisions and injured animals are consequently frequent and have a very high negative impact on the species, whose Mediterranean sub-population counts at just 2 500 mature individuals.


The project has developed an interference avoidance system aimed at detecting and tracking sperm whales; identifying threats to them; and preventing collisions and other risks by issuing warning messages in real time to ships in the area. A protocol for reducing the disturbance and impact risks has been drafted in cooperation with the local coast guard and agreed by all stakeholders involved. After receiving the warning message, ships will be invited to apply this protocol and the coast guard will supervise its application. The system is innovative because it prevents ship impacts with the whales by monitoring and tracking the animals underwater, by acoustic means. This aspect is vital, considering sperm whales spend three quarters of their time underwater.

To summarise, the expected results were:

  • Implementation of an active conservation tool, suitable for replication in other areas of the Mediterranean Sea;
  • Reduction of ship collision risks and stress derived from noise pollution from marine traffic for sperm whales in the selected area;
  • Definition of specific regulations and strategies to prevent ship collisions;
  • An increase in public awareness concerning the threats affecting cetaceans in the Pelagos Sanctuary; and
  • Implementation of a database of cetacean sightings that can be easily consulted and used for management, conservation and public dissemination purposes.

The system was active during the summer-autumn season for a total of 177 days over a three-year period. During this period, the presence of Sperm whales was noted on five distinct days with an average of 1 Sperm whale per month. More than 5,000 Sperm whale clicks were observed that allowed the complete reconstruction of four dives. The presence of these Sperm whales in the area has never been anticipated by visual observations. In one case the sperm whales were observed a posteriori thanks to WHALESAFE's indications regarding their position. This is the best result of the project: we have shown that thanks to listening to the clicks it is possible to know in advance the presence and position of the animals thus allowing to intervene by informing the ships and applying the protocol of conduct! Only in this way the risk of collisions can be drastically reduced.

Unfortunately, the storm of the 29th October 2018 destroyed the acoustic system and the project came to a stop.

Project Results (Deliverables and Milestones)

Preparatory actions in brief:


From 1/10/2014 to 30/11/2015:

  • A network including the major representatives of the stakeholders interested to the project activity, has been created.
  • A good training to the personnel involved in the project has been provided so they could manage the tools of their competence.
  • The Protocol of Conduct for all cases considered has been produced.
  • Dedicated meetings with the stakeholders and a survey based on three thousand questionnaires administrated at the cruise terminal, have been carried out.


Concrete actions in brief:

Concrete action C1: Design of Detection System

October 2014-december 2016

In the project area an interference avoidance system capable to detect and track Sperm whale, to identify the threats and to prevent collisions and other risks, has been created. The system is capable to recognize the sounds produced by the Sperm whales. And during the project it has identified more than 5000 clicks of the Sperm whales in the area and recorded more than 3.500 hours of sounds together with environment parameters.

Concrete action C2: Detection System Procurement

January 2014-June 2017

We demonstrated that the system could generate an alarm to forecast by means of Coast Guards messages, and by specific app for smartphones, the presence of sperm whales. Four sperm whales have been localized during the whole project and their presence in the project area has been verified a-posteriori with a visual campaign coordinated by WHALESAFE. None of these animal has been localized with alternatively methods, thus proving that the acoustic monitoring could be the real breakthrough in the reduction of risks for cetaceans

Concrete action C3: Detection System Deployment Planning

June 2015-September 2015

The goal of this activity is to identify the places for the installation of the monitoring system and to specify installation requirements. The target areas have been studied to identify their specific features and requirements in order to design an optimal deployment strategy. 

Concrete action C4: Preliminary area survey and acoustic campaign

January 2015-December 2015

We implemented the basis for a database of sound recording and sightings. Unfortunately, due to the impossibility to maintain in operation the system the sample is limited to few animals.

Concrete action C5: Installation of Detection System

August 2015-May 2016

The acquisition systems has been installed in front of the Vado harbour several kilometres off-shore, following the deployment plan produced by Action C.3. 

The detector installation has been completed on 18th May 2016.

Concrete action C6: Monitoring and alarm generation centre development and set up

January 2015-March 2020

The data analysis centre development and set-up has been provided. Data received by the buoys are collected and analyzed by a processing centre to produce warning information on possible collision risks. Data transmitted by buoys are received by a wifi bridge on the coast and sent to the centre via the Internet. Data are stored and processed to track Cetaceans presence and position in near real time. 

The system has been operative since September 2017

Concrete action C7: Overall System Test

May 2016-September 2018

After being installed in the target areas, the monitoring system has been tested for a period of few months to discover optimal settings and to analyse the acoustic background for improving Cetaceans detection performance. This activity included the calibration with acoustic beacon, boat tracking and the visual search in real time of the Cetaceans identified by the monitoring system. 

Concrete action C8: Tagging Campaign

September 2017-in progress

Whale watching activity triggered by the WHALESAFE detection system has been carried out. This action collected a series of data on dive behaviour in the area in order to test the functioning of the system, monitoring continuously the position of the animal in the three dimensions. 

On 13th July 2018, after the alarm generated by the system, a vessel has reached  the emersion location provided real time by the WHALESAFE detector, and two sperm whales have been visually identified. 

During the two days with high sperm whale presence in the area around 30 cetacean tracks have reconstructed. 

Action C9: Detection system operation and maintenance

June 2016-december 2018

The detector installation has been completed on 18th May 2016 

In the first weeks of operation the detector tuning has been performed.

Unfortunately some accidents occurred during the project duration:

On 13th July 2016 the signals of the two buoys have been lost, following a collision with a medium-size boat.

On 28th September 2017 the data cable connecting secondary and main buoy has been damaged and the maintenance of the detector has restarted right after the deployment of the detection unit (6/6/18).

After the summer campaign, the system has been placed in the Savona-Vado harbour in order to preserve it for the 2019 summer campaign. On 29th October 2018 an exceptional storm hit most of the cost of Liguria, destroying several harbours. Also Savona-Vado harbour suffered of huge damages destroying and sinking all the vessel in the port. The WHALESAFE buoy was on the main pier of the harbour of Savona-Vado, waiting to be re-placed after the bad weather season, and it has been thrown in the sea and it sank. 

The buoy has been recovered one month later during the operation of restoration of the harbour but it was  completely destroyed.

Action C10: Integration of Acquired Data

May 2016-March 2020


The data recorded during the various campaigns by the detector have been analysed. The structure and the relationship of the specific tables in the WHALESAFE support database have been defined. In the first phase, waiting for the buoys signal, the system has been tested with simulated signals. In any case the portal and database software have been arranged in order to not be dramatically revised in case of data format changes.

Communication actions in brief:

  • During all the project duration, communication and dissemination actions, addressed to stakeholders and large public have been carried out: 
  • 3000 cruise passengers have been contacted for a preliminary survey  
  • more of 3700 persons have been involved in events like conferences, guided tours at Acquario di Genova, presentation at international fairs
  • more than 1000 student have been involved in educational laboratories and presentations
  • more than 5000 children have played the Whalesafe game on board of Costa Crociere Cruise ships
  • through press articles, TV and radio emissions we have potentially reached more than five millions persons.

Conferenza Whalesafe 8 Giugno 2016

L’Università di Genova (Dipartimento della Terra, dell’Ambiente e della Vita e Dipartimento di Fisica), e la Capitaneria di porto di Savona, illustreranno come il progetto WhaleSafe, finanziato dall’Unione Europea, favorirà la conservazione dei capodogli, attraverso la creazione di un sistema di rilevamento e di allarme con boe intelligenti, che eviterà le possibili collisioni di questi cetacei con le navi.

Ingresso libero fino ad esaurimento posti


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