Friday, February 21, 2003

Aerial camera
aids volunteers
in whale count

By Diana Leone

When hundreds of volunteers count humpback whales around the state tomorrow, they will be assisted by a supercamera that can see underwater.

By comparing the underwater images gathered by the airplane-mounted device to the counts by shore-based observers, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary can get a better estimate of how many whales are out there, said Christine Brammer, whale count coordinator.

This year is the third time the Honolulu-based company Science & Technology International will be donating the use of its $1 million hyperspectral imaging abilities to the whale count.

Because STI's device can detect many more shades of color than an ordinary camera or the human eye, it can "see" at a level of detail that is useful in many applications.

The company, which contracts with the military, can use the device to search for mines or submarines underwater or for potential terrorist activity on land. It also is testing its use for early detection of cancer.

The camera, mounted to a blimp, was used on the East Coast recently for a homeland security project and to locate endangered right whales.

"We'll able to give them an exact statistic, which allows them to verify the shore-based count," said Greg Plumb, deputy program manager for STI's Littoral Airborne Sensor Hyperspectral system.

Whale sanctuary scientists also can use the data to help it improve accuracy in whale counts.

During the whale count from 8 a.m. to noon tomorrow on Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island, a plane with the system will fly back and forth between Kaneohe Bay and Sandy Beach, about four miles from shore and at an altitude of 1,000 feet, said STI spokeswoman Linda Jameson.

Other years it helped, the plane has flown along the North Shore.

The company will provide the images for an educational television program on whales that will air on Hawaii Public Television at 9 a.m. Thursday, Jameson said.

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