Humpback Highway

The Humpback Highway is a success story that shows how data collection and tags can lead to meaningful change. Marine biologist Hector Guzman, based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, has devoted his career to the study and conservation of marine species and the risks they face from heavy human activity and interaction. Guzman has been using animal tags in his work since 2003, tagging many types of marine species that navigate the region around Panama. Alarmed, like many, by falling humpback whale populations in the region surrounding Panama, Guzman set out to tag humpback whales to understand their migratory patterns and behaviour in and around high commercial vessel traffic areas. Guzman and his team identified over 300 humpback whales that take up residence in the busy Las Perlas Archipelago, and over six seasons, tagged 60 whales and monitored their movement around the known courses of 1000 shipping vessels that frequent the Las Perlas Archipelago. He found that most whales had come close to being struck by large commercial vessels, which can strike and kill a whale without any notice from the ship’s crew. With the cooperation of the Panama Maritime Authority, the Panama Canal Authority, and the Panama Chamber of Shipping, the Republic of Panama enacted a “Traffic Separation Scheme” in 2014,  which requires ships to travel year-round in two-mile-wide lanes separated from each other by three nautical miles of open water. From August through November, during the critical breeding season, ships also reduce their top speed to 10 knots. Guzman predicted that this plan could reduce whale-ship strikes as much as 95%, and the project still continues today. In an ideal world, shipping would dramatically decrease and ships would also be mounted with infrared sensors that could detect the presence of a whale, but using already available data on humpback whale activity to enact meaningful policy change should not be discounted. 

Smithsonian Global. “Satellite Whale Tracking Yields International Protection for Panamanian Humpbacks.”

Guzman, Héctor M., and Fernando Félix. “Movements and Habitat Use by Southeast Pacific Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) Satellite Tracked at Two Breeding Sites.


Biodiversity, Data, Ecological Monitoring, Monitoring