In 2015, scientists described the largest known mass stranding of whales off the coast of Chile. Surveyors who used boats and planes to explore the remote beaches of Patagonia in the months after the deaths said at least 343 great whales, mostly endangered sei whales, had washed up. It turns out their tally was way off. Researchers analyzing Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite images taken of the Gulf of Penas and its islands and coastlines in March 2015 say they showed almost 700 carcasses, per the BBC. The international team is now making the case that such satellites can "revolutionize" the real-time detection of whale strandings, particularly in remote areas, per a new release. That, in turn, could lead to a better understanding of why they're occurring and perhaps methods to ward them off.
The resolution of the photos analyzed in this study—from the WorldView-2 spacecraft, which detects surface anomalies larger than 20 inches across from an altitude of 435 miles—isn't even the best satellites currently offer, says Carlos Olavarría, an author of the study published in Plos One. New satellites can detect surface items at just a foot across and "the technology is getting better all the time," Olavarría explains, noting computers will be able to automatically analyze the images in the future. Scientists only learned about the mass stranding "by accident when an unrelated expedition chanced on the carcasses" in April 2015, reports the BBC. (Read more whales stories.)