Seven-time Emmy winner “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent and author David Pogue tells the untold stories behind the most mind-blowing advances in science and tech. You’ll hear from the characters involved—from their first inspiration to the times they almost gave up. From CBS News and Simon & Schuster.
[Season 2 • Episode 22 • published 10/26/23]
Every month, over a billion people open their phones and fire up Google Maps. Its original function—offering driving directions, with real-time traffic tracking—was disruptive enough in 2008, when most people had to pay $10 a month for traffic data. But since that time, it’s become a global business directory, a transit timetable, crowdedness monitor, a Street View miracle—and now, in its newest release, an augmented-reality viewer of the cityscape around you. The question is: How is Google doing it, and why is it free? Meet the man who runs Google’s entire Geo division.
Every month, over a billion people open their phones and fire up Google Maps. Its original function—offering driving directions, with real-time traffic tracking—was disruptive enough in 2008, when most people had to pay $10 a month for traffic data. But since that time, it’s become a global business directory, a transit timetable, crowdedness monitor, a Street View miracle—and now, in its newest release, an augmented-reality viewer of the cityscape around you. The question is: How is Google doing it, and why is it free? Meet the man who runs Google’s entire Geo division.
Google Maps offers driving directions, of course… but it also knows subway and bus schedules, the hours and phone numbers of businesses, photos of 98% of the world’s inhabited surface, and a lot more.
PHILLIPS: It’s a magical experience and it’s so valuable. It’s just a phenomenal advancement in technology and and a utility that, really, so many people just can’t imagine living without.
This is the guy in charge of Google Maps…and my ticket to finding out the answers to everything everyone’s always wanted to know! Which is better: Google Maps or Waze? How does Google Maps know the traffic speed of every road? How does it know how busy a store will be next Thursday?
Today, we’re going to find out. I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.”
Season two, episode 22: How Does Google Maps Do It?
At one point in season 1 of this podcast, I was interviewing Luis von Ahn, the creator of Captcha, that website-access test. And during the conversation, he volunteered this opinion:
Luis: By the way, you know, like Google Maps is an amazing piece of software, by the way. I think it’s one of the biggest, you know, GPS and something like Google Maps is one of the pinnacle of achievement of humankind.
David: We’re doing an episode of this on Google Maps!
Luis: Yeah. It’s amazing. The whole thing.
One of the pinnacle achievements of mankind, huh? A phone app?
And yes—I have wanted to go behind the scenes of Google Maps since the day I dreamed up this podcast. And today is the day.
Google Maps is one of the most widely installed apps ever made. As of 2021, this app was on ten billion phones. A billion people a month use it. A billion.
As you probably know, Google Maps is great for giving you driving, or walking, or biking directions. But from its first appearance on phones in 2007, it’s aspired to be a lot more than that. Here’s me in a New York Times video, gushing about the iPhone app when it debuted:
DP: It’s the new Google Maps app for iPhone. The design is clean and modern. Street View lets you see what any address looks like, and Compass view lets you look around someplace without actually being there. Everything is built in: Points of interest, reviews, photos, even making reservations, and the public transportation feature is just amazing.
Now, if Luis Von Ahn is right, that this app is one of the pinnacle achievements of mankind, I think this is why: Because the whole thing is an inconceivably huge exercise in data wrangling. A maps app requires a massive electronic database of road maps; another database of satellite photos of the whole world; a third database with details about businesses; and so on. If you’re Google, you have to stitch all of these data sets together seamlessly.
That’s hard, but not as hard as keeping it all updated. Forever. This is the part that makes me nearly pass out to contemplate. You can never rest. I just—I just don’t know how that could be possible. Thousands of businesses open and close every day. Roads are built. Roads are washed out or closed for construction. Buildings go up. Buildings come down. Trying to keep on top of all that sounds like my version of hell.
PHILLIPS: I love to talk about the map being alive, you know. So, David, think about —it’s changing all the time. It’s—roads can change. I mean, think about that four-lane road that now has two lanes because now there are cycling lanes added to it. Even speed limits change.
Chris Phillips is the general manager of Geo, which is Google’s name for the division that develops geography products, like Google Maps, Google Earth, and Waze.
PHILLIPS: So how do we keep these things up to date and businesses change? What was a coffee shop is now a laundromat is now a flower shop. What we do is, in order to build a map, we start with—think of it as a layer cake. You know, we are putting together all this imagery that we captured from satellites in our aerial imagery and Street View imagery, and then we start to overlay really important data. And that data we get from what we collect first party, we also work with, you know, thousands of local authorities and transit and mapping services to understand the information that’s out there about a place and the road network.
Quick glossary of terms here: “first party” refers to data that Google has collected itself.
And you also heard him mention Street View—I mean, what a mind-boggling project. It’s a feature of Google Maps that lets you look around at any address. It shows you 360-degree, interactive, panoramic photos, so you can see how fancy or how sketchy a place is before you go there—or without ever going there.
And where did these photos of every address on every road come from? They were captured by Google Street View cars, with 360-degree cameras on the roof, driving every road in every state in the US. And a lot of other countries, too. And where the Street View cars can’t go, they’ve used bikes, trikes, camels, boats, and snowmobiles. They’ve been driving around, photographing the world for years, and they’re still at it. At this point, Street View includes 280 billion photos from 100 countries—and over 10 million miles of roads.
We’ll come back to Street View. But Chris was describing how they handle the notion that the world’s geography is constantly changing…
PHILLIPS: We also bring people into the mix. So our community of users are actually constantly providing information that’s helping us keep, “hey, I think the hours of operation are wrong on that business. Let’s edit it.”
Yep. You, too, can make corrections to Google Maps. Look for a button called Contribute or Suggest an Edit. And people do this a lot. Like, 300 million people send in 50 million suggested edits a day. The superest of the superfans are known as Local Guides.
PHILLIPS: I get stopped at dinner parties, like, “I’m a local guide at this level. I’ve contributed this many place reviews. I am the expert in my neighborhood, at restaurants.”
POGUE: Yeah, you made me realize there must be, like, Google Maps annoying nerds who are very enthusiastic.
PHILLIPS: Never annoying, just passionate.
POGUE: I remember reading an Atlantic article maybe ten years ago, back when it wasn’t so much machine learning, but it was a room full of 300 people or something, manually entering all these changes about the streets and the shops into Google Maps just to keep it current.
PHILLIPS: We still very much have our operators that help us make sure the quality of the information is accurate. Think of the advanced AI and machine learning as getting so much more coverage in scale than you could get from a person. And the people are actually helping us tune it and make sure it’s right.
Google also uses an army of AI bots to call up businesses and interview them over the phone.
PHILLPS: It’s called Duplex. It’s part of our Assistant team, calling millions of businesses and checking in with them with an automated service that says, you know, “are you open and closed? Have your hours changed?”
Now, we start the conversation with getting permission, like, “Hey, we’re calling from Google. This is an automated service.” The idea is that we get permission and then you just have a quick conversation.
And it’s amazing that we can get the latest hours. And even if there were COVID restrictions or do you have accessible bathrooms. Like, things that are really important to keep in that place up to date?
So this is not just great for consumers, but it helps businesses. Over 250 million businesses around the world.
POGUE: If I report a change using that little Contribute button, what stops me from deliberately trying to mess you up by making it wrong?
PHILLIPS: We are using all these advanced techniques to really understand the trust level we have with the feedback. In some cases, depending on the types of information you’re contributing, we will let things through quickly, or we’ll double, triple check our work. And so the moderation technology can have trust built into letting things flow through.
So it’s a really, really great example of, where you have the machines that can help us receive these, you know, tens and tens of millions of edits, while also using the people to help check it.
Remember, I said that we’d be coming back to Street View? Turns out that photographic record of every street in the developed world has a big payoff to Google Maps in another way, too.
PHILLIPS: Street View is such a cool story. We are using it for so much more than just seeing what a place looks like. So when we are driving, we are also capturing, like, on that street corner, is that still a laundromat or is it now a coffee shop? We are using it to capture changes on street signs. Now it’s something that we use to actually help us update the map.
Are you starting to get a sense of just how much data is involved in maintaining a representation of the entire planet in an app on your phone? And then keeping it updated?
Those Street View cars will never be done. They’ll be driving forever, just to keep up with the changes.
So, we now know how they’re keeping the road maps up to date. We now know where they get the photos of the buildings. We know that they get the subway, bus, and train schedules directly from the transit authorities in 800 cities.
But how on earth does Google Maps know the current traffic speed on a given road? It’s not like they’ve implanted sensors into the pavement all over the planet. And don’t forget, the app also shows you how crowded a restaurant or shop or museum is right now, or will be at a certain time in the future. How does it know that?
Turns out the answer to those two questions is, in fact, the same: Google can see the positions of people’s phones on that road, or in that restaurant. It measures the movement of those phones, and presto—there’s your traffic speed. It tallies how many phones are in that restaurant, and voila—there’s your crowdedness data.
Now, Google is not tracking you. Your phone’s position is anonymous and aggregated, meaning it’s dumped into a pool of data with everyone else’s phones. And even so, you can opt out of contributing your phone’s position.
The point is that Google has gotten to the point where it doesn’t just know what the traffic or crowdedness is now; it can tell you how bad it’ll be at some time in the future.
PHILLIPS: We take a historical information around what was in, you know, the trends and the patterns that happened before on a Saturday morning versus a Monday morning. You know, that same– what were the historical patterns of traffic for the people who were driving at those times aggregated and then were able to overlay, okay, what’s happening right now?
I just gotta mention this one YouTube video I saw: It was a guy who wanted to demonstrate how Google calculates traffic speed. So he piled 99 smartphones into a wagon—like, a kid’s red wagon, with a handle—and he walked along an empty street in Berlin, pulling the wagon behind him. And sure enough: Google Maps reported the traffic as his walking speed. When he stopped in the road, the street turned red, indicating a traffic jam. He literally tricked Maps into rerouting cars to avoid his one-man traffic jam.
POGUE: But here’s—here’s magic. This is real magic. I and other people have noticed that when I’m entering an address, I have to put in like one digit, and Google Maps proposes the address I want. How does it know? It saves me so much typing. How is that possible?
PHILLIPS: So it could be defaulting to things that are nearby. You also could be pulling up recent searches that you may have done.
But we understand even popular addresses. So what could be really popular as a place that people might be going?
So there’s a number of different techniques, and it’s not always one thing, which is part of the magic.
And, by the way, magic that doesn’t cost you anything. I’ve always wondered about that.
POGUE: How is it that this could possibly be worth it to Google Inc to develop this amazing app and then give it away?
PHILLIPS: We’re able to monetize with advertising when appropriate. If you’re searching for coffee shops near me, you might get a few coffee shops that are trying to promote themselves in the list of ones that are available.
POGUE: Do you make any revenue from licensing the data to corporations?
PHILLIPS: We do offer it to businesses and enterprises. That’s the other part of my job in the GEO portfolio is, some of your favorite apps have a map inside. Most developers that use it don’t pay. So there’s a pricing approach that keeps it free for most. And, you know, depending on how big you get, you can start to pay.
So: At this point, Google has been perfecting and enhancing Maps for 18 years. Every year, it adds more features, and only rarely drops features.
You gotta wonder: At this point, how much more useful stuff is there to add? How is it possible to come up with any more features in an app that’s already packed?
After the ad break—you’ll find out!
Second ad break
Before the break, we were talking about what a massive job it is to gather and maintain the data that describes the roads, the signs, the speed limits, the traffic speeds, the photographs, the aerial views, the business hours, the accessilbility features, and the crowdedness of 250 million businesses. Spoiler alert: A big job. Very big.
Which leads me to one of my favorite stories in all of tech.
When the iPhone came out in 2007, there was no app store. You got 15 preinstalled apps, and you liked it. And one of them was Google Maps.
But a year later, Google introduced its own iPhone lookalike phones, Android phones, and Steve Jobs was furious. He insisted that Google had ripped off the iPhone’s design. And as tensions rose between the companies, Jobs couldn’t help noticing that Google had blessed the Android version of Google Maps with important features that it didn’t give to the iPhone version—like turn-by-turn driving directions and vector graphics—that is, sharp instead of pixelated. Google was giving preferential treatment to its own phones!
So Jobs decided to dump Google Maps from the iPhone. No way was he going to give such prime iPhone real estate to Apple’s arch rival!
He commanded his team to create its own app—to be called Apple Maps—to replace Google Maps. And sure enough: in 2012, Apple Maps appeared on every iPhone instead of Google’s app.
And how’d that go?
Here’s what I wrote in my New York Times column that year:
“Maps may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed. In this new app, the Washington Monument has been moved to a new spot across the street. Search for Cleveland, Georgia, and you’ll wind up right smack in Cleveland, Tennessee. Riverside Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, is in the right place but the wrong decade; it became a Publix supermarket 11 years ago.
Entire lakes, train stations, bridges, and tourist attractions have been moved, mislabeled or simply erased. Satellite-photo views consist of stitched-together scenes from completely different seasons, weather conditions, and even years.
The Brooklyn Bridge has melted into the river, the road to the Hoover Dam plunges straight down into a canyon, and Auckland’s main train station is in the middle of the sea.”
The problem was that Apple bought a couple dozen off-the-shelf databases—map data from TomTom, restaurant and store listings from Yelp, traffic data from Waze, and so on—and then just tried to jam them together.
To be fair, that’s how Google Maps got started, too, way back in 2005; Google bought a bunch of similar databases. But Google spent years massaging, perfecting, and supplementing that data—years that Apple didn’t have to spend.
The Apple app was so bad that Tim Cook issued a public letter, apologizing for the disaster and suggesting, I kid you not, that people use Google Maps instead!
Anyway. That was 11 years ago. Water under the Brooklyn Bridge!
Both Apple and Google have vastly improved their apps since then. Over the years, Google has added mapping of the moon, some planets, the Space Station, trails, college campuses, the Great Barrier Reef and the underwater coasts of Hawaii, and even indoor locations like malls, airports, and train stations. In 2012, the app started letting you download maps to the phone ahead of your trip, so you could still use it without an internet connection. In 2017, it started remembering where you parked.
A couple years ago, Maps added an augmented-reality feature, where you come up out of the subway, all disoriented, and Maps displays these giant floating arrows on the phone’s screen as you hold the phone upright in front of you.
POGUE: When I come out of a subway, I always use that live view thing that shows me with augmented reality with arrows which way to start walking.
PHILLIPS: I love that feature. That is so cool. That’s so helpful to orient you when you walk up, which is an example of what a two-dimensional map really always struggled to do.
Today, in fact, the very day of this episode’s release, Google Maps has a major new release.
So, first of all, I’ve always told whoever would listen that Google Maps is actually a stealth weapon against the climate crisis. I mean, think about it: The app’s primary effect on drivers is to get them directly to their destinations as quickly as possible. People don’t drive around lost anymore. Fewer miles driven means fewer emissions.
But lately, Google has been expanding the app’s pollution-saving features.
PHILLIPS: We have a new feature that’s called Eco-friendly routing. So when you’re looking at, ”OK, I need to go from here to there,” in the instance where there’s a different route, we will show you a route that could be two or 3 minutes longer to get there, but actually uses less energy. And this is using advanced AI techniques, partnering with energy providers to really build out models that say, “hey, how many stop/starts are there? What’s the elevation happening?” Different conditions that make a route actually use more fuel. You could save money on fuel. You can have less carbon emissions in the real world.
Maps could already show you where the charging stations are if you have an electric car. But now, those icons also indicate the last time somebody used a charging station.
POGUE: How does that help me, if it says the last time it was used was just three months ago?
PHILLIPS: Well, that could be an indication that it might not be functioning. If it was used recently, you have a higher confidence that it will be working.
But maybe the coolest new feature of all—is something called Immersive Routes.
PHILLIPS: This is this is one of my favorite new things that we’re doing. It’s bringing to life a photorealistic view of what that journey is going to be like, whether you’re walking or riding your bike.
it’s like you’re flying over. You’re flying over the route and you’re able to see based on the time of day, what the traffic might be like, what the air quality is, what the weather is. And that is powered by fusing together satellite, aeria,l Street View imagery, overlaying all of this real time and predicted data sets into the experience.
So my wife and I were recently traveling, and we wanted to go from our hotel to a shopping district, and we were going to walk. We were able to fast forward to 4:00 that same day and see what the weather conditions were going to be like. And actually it was going to be raining. So we decided to go on the walk earlier.
In other words, it shows you an animated, overhead, photorealistic view of your intended path. They’re starting with this feature in about 50 major cities. This new feature is yet another payoff of all those Street View panoramas that Google’s cars have been capturing all these years.
PHILLIPS: It’s so cool because it shows, like— Is it dark out? Is it sunset? Is it raining based on your positioning? And it stitches all that together so it simulates what it would be like to live later today versus right now.
And, you know, when you’re deciding to, like go on a bike ride, what the weather’s going to be like or how busy the traffic is on the road, what places are along the way. This is an amazing way to kind of check out before you go. And you can kind of fast-track through the route to check it out or —
POGUE: I was gonna say— if it was real time, that would not be a good feature.
PHILLIPS: That would not be a good feature.
I give a lot of talks. And about six years ago, I used to include, in my technology talks, a couple of demos of augmented reality. That’s where the phone superimposes graphics on its camera view of the world around you, providing more information about what you’re looking at.
And I’d always fantasize about where augmented reality could go someday. You could scan a bunch of apartment buildings, and little arrows would pop up to show you which apartments are currently available to rent, and for how much. Or you could point your phone at a restaurant, and see a list of its health violations.
Well, Google hasn’t quite done that. But it’s started down that path with something called Lens and Maps.
PHILLIPS: You can lift up the phone and hit the camera search icon in Google Maps, and it will take and we represent what you’re looking at.
We use that street view imagery and so forth, and we actually build a view of what you’re seeing in front of you. And we overlay all the places. So you see like, oh, ATM shop, barber shop, another restaurant, a bar: the ratings, are they open, are they busy?
So it’s this example of really immersive, photorealistic information coming to life right on front in front of you.
I have to say, it was cool having the head of Google Maps and Waze on the horn. I could ask anything I wanted. I could even settle the old Maps-vs-Waze debate. Google owns both apps, but they look and work differently, and still sometimes provide different directions.
POGUE: Everyone always says, “Oh, I use Waze for navigation.” “I use Google Maps. It’s better.” Is one of them better?
PHILLIPS: We love that people are so passionate. You know, they offer two different driving experiences. One, you know, Waze is like, you’re getting maneuvers that might be a little more aggressive, and you’re you’re beating the traffic.
And Google Maps has a different personality. You know, it’s more quietly there navigating you along, giving you the right audio updates, routes that, you know, Sometimes they’re a little different.
And you know what? There’s a lot of people that use both. David, I’m one of them. I’ll have different scenarios when if I get into a heavy traffic situation, I or I know it’s gonna be really busy. I might check out Waze, because I really want to, you know, get around this traffic jam in a creative way.
POGUE: Well, wait a minute. It sounds like you’re saying that Waze might feel better, at least in traffic situations.
PHILLIPS: Well, we both offer different options and alternatives. Our teams are really passionate about keeping both brands in the market and having loyal users have that choice.
POGUE: I’m just not going to get you to say which one is better at navigation.
PHILLIPS: I mean, we’re in the family together, you know. And we we do we do care about both, both teams in the products we do.
He did say that Google is beginning to cross-pollinate the two apps. Not with features or design, but with data, like speed traps, speed cameras, road obstructions, construction, and road conditions. Stuff that used to be available only in Waze is now showing up in Maps.You are the guy ultimately in charge of this iconic piece of software that a billion people are using a day. / do you dominate cocktail parties? I mean, do people come up to you with questions, like, “how come this button…?” Is it a blessing or is it a curse?
PHILLIPS: David, It’s— I feel extremely blessed. And here’s the thing. I am representing so many great people that have done so much great work for so many years. And we have team members that have been working on this for so many years and have been here from the beginning, and then so many new leaders that have come in and added new perspective and helped us take it forward. So I see myself as just helping lead.
But yes, back to your dinner party. I get asked all the time about, “OK, here’s what I love, here’s what you got to fix, okay? I need you to integrate with this. Do that. Let me show you.”
And then depending on the audience, depending on how charged the feedback is, I might turn around, say, and, “Did you check out this feature and check out this?”
So my, my, my wife will often kind of have to pull me away. She’s like, “OK, that’s enough.” But yes, I get a lot of feedback. I welcome it, and I think my family probably wish that it wasn’t always the case.
POGUE: Well, I’ll tell you what. You and your wife are invited to our place for drinks and dinner next Saturday night at eight.
PHILLIPS: Sounds great, David.
POGUE: I could totally geek out the whole time. And my very last question is, do we know how much of the world Google Maps knows about?
PHILLIPS: Well, we’re operating in 250 countries, but we feel like there’s still a lot left to map. We’re not done. We have a lot more to do.
PHILLIPS: A lot more to do. Oh, yes. This mapping job is not close to being done.
POGUE: It’d have to be, like, two-lane driveways in Montana or Siberia at this point!
PHILLIPS: Well, we have a product called Plus Codes, where we help the unaddressed get an address. And so if you look at countries in the world, places in the world where people don’t even have a physical address and helping work with NGOs and officials to give them a real address so that they can register for health care or have a voice or having emergency services arrive to them if they have needs.
There’s still so much to do, David. And that’s what keeps us going.
[Season 2 • Episode 21 • Published 10/13/23.]
For the most part, we don’t hunt whales anymore, but we’re still killing them—mostly by driving ships into them. One species, the North Atlantic right whale, is now extinct in most parts of the world; only 340 are left. But it may not be too late. An extraordinary coalition of nonprofits, research institutions, foundations, and even megalithic shipping corporations are teaming up to develop technology, prove the science, and, yes, save the whales.
The good news is that for the most part, we don’t hunt whales anymore. Some species have actually come back from the brink of extinction.
The bad news is that we are still killing them—mostly by plowing into them with our ships. But you can’t really blame the ship captains.
MARK: What is he gonna do? He has an 800-foot-long ship. Let’s say he sees a whale that’s a half a mile in front of him. He has no chance whatsoever to avoid that whale. He can’t stop. It could take a half hour or an hour for him to stop that ship.
If only nonprofits, scientists, inventors, governments, and even the shipping companies could come together to devise a solution! If only we could use science and technology to save the whales!
I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”
Season 2, episode 21: How Cool Tech is Saving the Whales.
Surf sounds… seagulls… distant voices laughing
Every year, my wife Nicki and I “kidnap” each other for our birthdays. Kind of a cute tradition. And in 2022, I kidnapped her to this adorable seaside community called Half Moon Bay, California.
One gorgeous afternoon, we were walking along the famous beach there, when eagle-eye Nicki goes, “Oh, weird!”
She pointed. Way out to sea, directly in front of us, she saw this—orb. This super weird sphere. Light gray, with ribs. Bobbing up on top of the water.
DP: So we’re on the beach, at Half Moon Bay, and we see this massive thing. Coming toward the beach. Like some student maritime project. Is it an alien spacecraft? Look at that mother!
Wave by wave, it seemed to be coming straight toward us.
DP: It’s right outta “Alien.”
I took a picture of it and tweeted: “This thing seems to be metal. No sea birds around. Any idea what it might be?”
There were some funny answers. “ET’s scout ship.” “The Nautilus.” “A gigantic pill bug.” And my favorite response, “Poseidon’s bike helmet.”
But as the thing got closer, the shiny surface started looking darker, and the sphere loomed bigger and bigger on the waves. Eventually, it ran aground, just a few feet away from us at edge of the beech. With a huge spray of mist, it suddenly deflated, turning from that weird spherical spaceship shape to the shape of…a huge dead whale.
A crowd gathered. Inevitably, a couple of dudes went up to it and took selfies with it.
DP: So it wasn’t a space ship, it wasn’t a student project, it wasn’t Poseidon’s bike helmet. It was, in fact, a whale carcass—and now a tourist attraction.
Nicki called the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco to report the incident. And within hours, stories online filled in the blanks for us. This was a 17-year-old female humpback whale, and she’d been killed by a ship strike.
But she wasn’t just any humpback whale. She was the best-known, most photographed whale in California.
TED: Her name was Fran and she had been photographed so many times. We knew she was born in 1997. She was seen every single year. She was a very well-loved whale.
This is Ted Cheeseman. He’s the creator of a website called happywhale.com, an online photographic database of whales that ordinary citizens have spotted. He knew our whale! I guess a lot of people did.
And what’s really wild is that I did not interview him. You’re listening to a completely unrelated “CBS Sunday Morning” interview, with a different correspondent. Conor Knighton. Complete coincidence. Neither of these guys had any idea that I had witnessed Fran’s final appearance.
TED: Well, so sadly, she was killed by a ship. She washed up in Half Moon Bay. She washed up ashore. We saw the fluke. We identified her, found out — um, Marine Mammal Center out of San Francisco did a necropsy, found out she’d been killed by a ship. Super sad, but we didn’t know what had happened to her calf.
That’s right: just a couple of months before she died, Fran had had a daughter.
TED: Her calf was named Aria, got named Aria as a sort of a statement of hope. And then we didn’t see Aria again after the — after — this was August 2022, Fran was killed, hadn’t seen her calf.
I’d already felt terrible about Fran. But I really grieved for Aria. The poor thing was only a few months old; no telling if she survived her mother’s death.
Honestly, I hadn’t even known that ship strikes are a thing. But not only does it happen all the time, 2018, 2019, and 2021 were the worst years on record for ship strikes off the West Coast. 2020 is missing from that list only because the pandemic happened, and shipping traffic dropped way off.
POGUE: We are gathered here today to talk about whales. I think in the common perception, people in the ancient days used to kill whales for their blubber and their oil. Have we stopped doing that?
MARK: For the most part.
Mark Baumgartner is a marine ecologist, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
MARK: We’re gonna talk a lot today about the North Atlantic right whale with only 340 whales. Deaths in that population is really quite concerning. So, no, there’s no commercial hunting for– for those right– POGUE: Wait a minute. So– so there are only 340 right whales, where? MARK: Alive in the world. North Atlantic right whales, there are only 340 left POGUE: What happened to them? MARK: They’re called the right whale, we believe, because they were the right whale to hunt. They were slow moving, coastal, and pretty easy to approach and kill. And they floated when you killed them. So you could literally see a right whale out at sea, row your boat to them, harpoon them, hang on for a long time until the animal died, and then tow them back to shore. POGUE: Wow. MARK: Blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales were too fast to be caught and killed. And if you killed them, they would sink. And so we weren’t able to actually harvest those species until the invention of the exploding harpoon, which is around the end of the 19th century. POGUE: OK. MARK: But right whales had been hunted for a long, long time. The population is in a pretty fast, serious, and very concerning decline since 2010, so from 500 animals just over 10 years ago to about 340 animals today. POGUE: Wow. Okay. Now, don’t hurt me, but (LAUGH) why should we care about this one species out of the millions of species of critters? MARK: For a couple reasons, I think, David. This is an iconic species, one that we can all sort of look at– I can show a picture of a whale to a child and they know what it is. This species represents many, many, many other species that are not nearly so visible. The other reason is that whales provide these, what we call ecosystem services that we don’t even really fully appreciate. POGUE: So when you say the whales would sort of recycle nutrients, what’s that mechanism? You mean they– MARK: Pooping. (LAUGH) POGUE: Nice to get a scientist who knows the lingo. (LAUGH) MARK: They eat. They poop. Those nutrients become available for algae in the ocean to grow, the plants of the ocean to grow, and on and on goes the cycle.
OK. So whales perform an important service for the whole ocean, and they’re a poster child for all the damage we’re doing to the planet. Great. So how can we save them?
Well, first, let’s figure out why they’re dying.
MARK: So right whales tend to get hit by ships and entangled in fishing gear. And these are the two major causes of death. So we’re killing them faster than they can reproduce, at this point. POGUE: All right. So ship strikes and nets. MARK: Fishing gear entanglements, not nets. So it’s a common perception that the nets that we tow through the ocean are dangerous for whales. They’re not. If you’ve ever been to New England, and you’ve gone out on the water, or even just gone to the beach and looked out on the water during the summer, one of the most beautiful things you can see in New England is this field of lobster buoys. Those buoys are attached to ropes that go to the sea floor. It’s those ropes that are called buoy lines, or end lines, or vertical lines, that whales get entangled in. And because of the scale at which we are harvesting lobster and crab, there are literally millions of these lines in the ocean. And they are each, in their own right, a whale trap.
POGUE: Has anyone not thought of a technological solution to these buoy lines for the lobster traps?
MARK: In fact, they have. And there’s actually a lot of work being done on something called ropeless or on-demand fishing, ropeless meaning just take those end lines away.
So if you are fishing a lobster trawl and you want– ropelessly or on demand— And you would send an acoustic command down, s– specific for your gear, and say, “I’m here. I want my gear back.” And it would– the device on the sea floor would hear that. It would say, “My fisherman’s here. I’m gonna release my end line.” End line would come to the surface. And the fisherman would just pick it up as he normally would a persistent end line.
So that part– for the last five years, that has sort of been developed, prototyped, demonstrated. That stuff works. And that’s great. That’s great progress.
The next challenge is– is how do we find that gear. And that’s a system that we’re working very hard on to sort of advance, so the fishermen will just– they just look down on their chart plotter, and they can see where all the gear is. And that’s being developed today. And we’re making good progress on that, as well.
OK, that’s great that they’re working on saving the right whale, and that technology could soon save whales from getting killed by those lobster traps. But Fran wasn’t a right whale, and she wasn’t killed by a rope. She was hit by a ship.
And that’s a much harder problem to solve.
POGUE: Don’t whales have some kind of sonar that lets them know that a massive ship is coming?
MARK: Telling where a source is– a sound source is in the ocean is a little more difficult than it is in air, partly because the sound travels a lot faster underwater than it does in air. So if you and I went out, put our heads underwater, and someone drove a boat at us, it’d be very hard to tell what direction that that boat is coming from. And that’s crucial information to know to be able to get out of the way of the path of a ship. The nerdy science reason is because that low-frequency noise has very long wavelengths that are much longer than the space between your ears. And so that directionalization is really hard. And–
POGUE: That’s wild.
MARK: So if you can’t directionalize and you can’t figure out how far away, it’s really difficult for an animal to judge, “Okay. There’s a risk here.” Also, right whales are exposed to ship noise all the time. They hear ships all the time. So whether a ship is close or far away, they’re probably not paying attention ‘cause that’s just what they hear all the time.
POGUE: Okay. So we’ve covered why the whale can’t see the ship. Why can’t the ship see the whale?
MARK: Right. Whales are difficult to see at sea, believe it or not. So if you’ve ever looked down on the ocean on a windy day, what do you see? You mostly see white caps. Well, what does a whale look like when it comes to the surface? / You know, when they exhale, it’s white. And it’s difficult to see ‘em.
But also these ships can be enormous. Imagine a tanker that’s six– 800 feet long and the– and the– the bridge is in the back, so the f– so the captain’s looking out over 800 feet of ship before he even gets to the first patch of water that’s in front of the ship. And so being able to see out in front of the– in front of the ship well enough to be able to detect a whale is a problem.
But then, what is he gonna do? He has an 800-foot-long ship. Let’s say he sees a whale that’s a half a mile in front of him. He has no chance whatsoever to avoid that whale. He can’t stop. It’s not like jammin’ on the brakes in your car and the car stops immediately. He can’t turn. He’s got a giant, giant vessel filled with cargo. If he turns too sharply, the whole ship will go over. So it’s a real safety issue for them to divert course. And so even if the captain could identify that there’s a whale out there, it’s likely very little that that captain can do to avoid it.
So the whales don’t know they’re about to be killed, and the ship doesn’t know when it’s about to kill one. In fact…
POGUE: So when a ship hits a whale, does the ship care?
SEAN: Most of the time, they have no idea that they have run over a whale. And the crews that we’ve been talking to are really, really mortified by this. They– they– feel terribly when they discover there’s a large, beautiful animal wrapped around the bow of their ship. They simply don’t know.
This is Sean Hastings, who works for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is the U.S. agency in charge of ocean policies, and Hastings oversees some of its California programs. He’s also not one to shy away from a good dad joke. Or… a bad dad joke.
SEAN: What you haven’t asked me, is what is the most sustainable way to ship.
POGUE: Yeah. What is the most sustainable way to ship?
SEAN: Santa’s sleigh. (LAUGH)
POGUE: We’re gonna edit that right out. (LAUGH)
But I left that in here so you wouldn’t be super depressed as we head into the ad break. I mean, so far, it sounds like we’re just going to keep hitting whales with ships, right? I mean, 90% of everything in your life was brought to America in a container ship. Those things make 200 million voyages a year. What chance do the whales have?
I can answer that question. And I promise it’s not depressing.
2nd Ad Break
OK. So before the break, we were talking about whales dying without ever knowing what hit them. But we know what hit them: ships.
Also before the break, I had just introduced NOAA’s Sean Hastings, who’s put together two solutions that just…might…work.
SEAN: So the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration– my parent agency here off the California coastline— well, we recognized this threat a little over a decade ago of ships hitting whales. And so we started to work with industry– the shipping industry. We started working with scientists and all sorts of concerned parties to determine what could we do to reduce fatal ship strikes. And the two very somewhat obvious and beth– best ways to mitigate the risk is, one, separate ships and whales.And we have managed to adjust shipping lanes to move the ships farther offshore, concentrate shipping ideally away from where we see the whales coming to feed May through November and December of every year. So separating the problem is the first step.
And sure enough: In places in the world where governments have established alternate routes for the ships to take, to avoid the whale-feeding times and places, a lot fewer whales get hit. Mark Baumgartner has seen it first-hand.
MARK: A good solution is just to move those shipping lanes around. That has happened outside the ports of Boston, as well as St. John in Canada, where I did my Ph.D. research. It was an aggregation of right whales in the in the Bay of Fundy that would happen every single year and they’d be in the same place. And there was a major shipping lane that went right through that area. So, changing the route– added maybe 15 minutes to the ship’s– to the ship’s transit, but it reduced the risk of a ship strike by about 80%.
And so, yes: Driving around the whale areas really works. Yay!
Small smattering of applause SFX
The thing is, you can’t always do that. The geography of the landmasses and oceans don’t always offer room for alternate pathways into the harbor. In those situations, the ships have no choice but to plow through the whale feeding areas.
In those cases, according to Hastings, there’s Plan B.
SEAN: So the second-best approach that we’re working on now is to slow ships down. By slowing ships down, it gives the whales more opportunity to get out of the way. And in the event that they are struck, there’s a higher likelihood of survivorship. This is much akin to having a slow speed zone around a school.
POGUE: So how fast does a ship normally go? And how much are you trying to get them to slow down?
SEAN: They’re traveling about 15 knots. And that’s roughly about 18 miles per hour. And what we’re asking them to do is to slow down to ten knots or about 12 miles per hour when they’re coming through these critical whale feeding zones. A slow ship would reduce the impact of a fatal ship strike– by up to 50%.
Now, on the East Coast, where those 340 remaining right whales are struggling to survive, slowing down during whale season is mandatory.
On the West Coast, though, NOAA asked the shipping lines if they’d be willing to slow down voluntarily. It was a bust. Nobody bothered. So NOAA decided to sweeten the pot.
SEAN: We decided to change the approach. And we started to incentivize shipping companies to slow down off the California coast, May through December. We offered positive public relations, not shaming. We offered modest financial incentives if they cooperated at high levels. And what we’ve seen over the last ten years is tremendous growth in cooperation. We recognize them with certificates and plaques, lots of positive press, and– what we’re really heartened by is while we offered financial incentives in the past, most of the companies are declining the financial incentive. They’re not doing it for the money; they’re doing it because they know it’s the right way to move the world’s goods. The other thing to mention is that slower ships emit less air pollution and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they emit out of their stacks. Shipping globally accounts for 3% to 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. So there’s a lot of co-benefits here to– having ships adjust their schedules as they come to the California coast; reducing fatal ship strikes on endangered whales, reducing air emissions, greenhouse gases, and also ocean noise.
The name of this voluntary program is Blue Whales/Blue Skies, and it was Sean Hastings’s brainchild.
SEAN: We’re seeing cooperation across all shipping lines at around 65% to 70% of the total distance they travel– off California at ten knots. That’s really, really promising. We still have a ways to go. We need cooperation rates at 100% to fully mitigate the impacts of ship strikes and air pollution from ships. POGUE: So 65% to 70% of the ships are complying with the slow-down periods. Among the ones who are not complying, do you have any idea what they’re thinking, what their stance is? SEAN: They claim that they can’t adjust their schedule to accommodate for the slow speed zones and slow speed time frames.
A key problem is that the slow-speed zones are dynamic. The government makes these zones come and go, appear and disappear, depending on where the whales are. Mark Baumgartner, from Woods Hole, describes this problem like this:
MARK: So if you’re a vessel that’s traveling from Europe to the United States, and you only have another day of steaming to go, and you have all the resources that the port set up so that when you come in at 9:00 tomorrow, the longshoreman will be there, all the trucks will be there, everything will be ready to offload your ship, the cargo on your ship. Today, this morning, a slow zone goes up. You have to slow down to ten knots. I am going to– I’m not gonna be getting to port tomorrow at 9:00, I’m gonna be getting there at 1:00. Now, all those resources are just sitting there doing nothing for four hours. And there’s a cost associated with that. And so for that reason, the commercial shipping industry is– is really not embracing these dynamic speed zones.
So the government is considering much more expanded mandatory ship speed slowdowns for the entire– US East Coast during the winter time. And so it’s– it’s a big deal that’s happening right now. If a shipping company knows that in the last 100 miles of their trip they’re gonna have to slow to ten knots, they can– they can plan for that. As they’re coming across, they could speed up in the deep ocean and then slow down, you know, closer to shore. They’re logistics companies; this is what they do. And so they can figure out a way to get to port exactly on time if everyone knows what the slowdown rules are.
MARK: So the mandatory system is almost better– m– mandatory in the sense that it’s predictable is almost better for the– for the shipping industry. POGUE: Does it have a chance of becoming law? MARK: I don’t know. (LAUGH)
OK. So maybe two-thirds of the shipping traffic is voluntarily slowing down to save whale lives—that’s pretty good. But not a single ship will slow down unless NOAA can tell them that whales are nearby.
So the success of the entire system depends on one little piece of data: Where are the darn whales? It’s not like they’re always in one place at one time. It’s not like there’s, you know, a bar where all the humpbacks gather on Friday nights.
Well, one way is to look for them from the air. So once a month, Sean Hastings gets into a tiny plane and flies over the California shipping channels, looking out the windows for whales. I joined him and his colleague Jess Morten on one of these flights.
JESS: Oh, we got gray whales! I haven’t seen gray whales in a long time!
POGUE: Oh my god, that’s incredible.
JESS: Very close to the surface.
POGUE: So cool!
Once this tiny plane landed, Hastings and Morten immediately reported the whale sightings to the participating ships, so they’d know it was time to slow down. HOWEVER…
SEAN: I can’t be there all the time, looking for these whales. I fly once a month. That’s one day a month. That’s one data point.
They desperately needed some way of monitoring the whales’ presence 24 hours a day. If they had that, they could feed that real-time information to incoming ships…who could slow down…and save the whales. And this, really, is my favorite part of the story. I’m going to let Callie Leiphardt tell it to you.
CALLIE: I am a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory.
That would be Benioff as in Marc Benioff, the software billionaire, who started this ocean-science lab to find, quote, “solutions to restore ocean health.” And in the case of the whale-data problem, they worked with the Woods Hole Institute o come up with …a buoy. A biiiiig yellow buoy.
CALLIE: The surface buoy itself is almost like a small car. Like a very– like a VW bug. Like it’s– it’s really big– for a buoy. And they are actually bo– battery operated. So they are designed to be autonomous at sea and operate without anyone having to go and, you know, mess with it, hopefully, for at least a year. So we have this big, beautiful yellow buoy that sits on the surface. And 600 feet under water, we have a base that has a hydrophone—so, an underwater microphone—that is actually hooked up to a software that is trained to say, “That’s a blue whale. That’s a fin whale. That’s a humpback whale.” And we’re getting all of those detected vocalizations in real time.
POGUE: So this microphone can tell the difference between different whale songs?
CALLIE: Yep! If they are vocalizing in and around the shipping lanes, we’re gonna detect it. And so that data is all sent to our system in, you know, ten minute increments. It’s almost like weather forecasting for blue whales.
POGUE: So if I’m a ship coming over from China, I will have some kind of screen or app or alert that says, “I see a whale nearby”?
CALLIE: That’s a call, a text, an email, however that company best sees fit to communicate with their fleet. So if I’m a ship captain, I have a really nice understanding of: it’s a medium, high, very high whale presence rating in the Santa Barbara Channel.
The Benioff folks have now deployed two of these buoys—one in Santa Barbara, one in San Francisco, but there’s no reason the technology couldn’t be replicated everywhere. On the East Coast, in Woods Hole, Mark Baumgartner uses similar buoys to listen for whale song and warn incoming ships.
POGUE: Can we hear what these sound like?
MARK: Sure. This is a right whale sound. So right whales make an upsweep. (MAKES NOISE) And we can– we can– detect those– pitch tracks really well.
MARK: That call is basically what we think of as a contact call. It’s, “Is anyone out there?” And it might even be, “Is anyone out there? This is Mark.” It might be individually indentifiable for the animals. Everyone knows humpback whale songs. They are some of the most commonly known, and they’re– they’re really beautiful.
MARK: It’s males that are doing this singing behavior. And they’re likely transmitting information to either other males or females to say, “How big I am. How fit I am. Maybe we’d like to get a drink later,” right? (LAUGH) It’s all the things that men do to attract women is encoded in that song.
The last thing I’ll play you is those 20– those fin-whale 20 Hertz calls. These are very low frequency. This is sped up 24 times.
MARK: They’re like the metronomes of the sea. It’s a much simplified version of singing, but it’s still a pattern of notes that conveys some information.
Baumgartner’s team also has a fleet of seven what he calls gliders: like seven-foot-long self-powered torpedoes, also equipped with whale microphones. They follow a programmed course in the ocean, listening for whales, for four months on a battery charge.
POGUE: I do notice (LAUGHTER) that on each of these, you’ve written in Sharpie your phone number and email address, “If found, leave at sea.”
MARK: Yeah, so we’ve had some interesting experiences where– mariners have found them, miraculously, and been able to get them on board, (LAUGH) and they take them home. Now, we’re tracking it, of course. It has a GPS and it’s sending us its position every two hours. So we know if someone puts it in a car and takes it home, we know exactly where they live. (LAUGH) So we go to their house, knock on the door, and say, “Can we have our glider back?”
You know what’s even cooler? This WhaleSafe program doesn’t just send the “whales in the house!” alert to ship captains. They also post the data to a public website—whalesafe.com. You can look at it whenever you want. You can look at it right now. Whalesafe.com.
The site shows exactly how many of each kind of whale are in each major California shipping channel right now. That site also shows you, by the way, a complete list of all the different shipping companies, and what percent of the time they respond to the alerts by slowing down. WhaleSafe even gives them letter grades! Some companies get Fs—the ones with zero percent compliance, who don’t slow down at all in the whale zones. Like Eagle Bulk Shipping, Woo Yang Shipping, and Atlantis Management Inc.
Then there are the good guys: The companies who get A’s.
POGUE: And since good press is one of the incentives for these companies to comply, here’s our chance. Would you be willing to give us the names of some shipping lines that are doing well?
SEAN: Oh, absolutely. MSC has been the leader in our co– ship– program for the last three or four years, slowing down close to 90% of their entire fleet– in– in these whale zones. We have Evergreen, Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd. These companies are really demonstrating by example that they care.
You may not have heard of MSC, because the company doesn’t do much consumer advertising. But it happens to be the world’s biggest shipping company. It operates in 1500 ports in 155 countries.
DARR: We have about 750 cargo ships, 23 cruise ships, maybe 800 in total of various types.
Bud Darr runs Maritime Policy and Government Affairs for MSC.
DARR: I’ll start by saying, there’s no one in our industry that wants to see any one of these magnificent creatures harmed or killed by anything we do. And– and we’re a company full of seafarers too, (LAUGH) if you look at the leadership structure of our company. We believe in this very, very deeply. And if we can find a way that has manageable operational impacts, but it improves our environmental footprint, we’re looking for those sorts of solutions every single day.
POGUE: I know you’re not speaking for your competitors, but if you had to guess, what would the downside be of taking some of these whale protective steps for them?
DARR: Well, depends on which one you’re talkin’ about. There is, of course, ins– speed reduction. There is some impact on the schedule. There is some impact on– on cost that probably comes with that. And that takes a lot of sophistication and planning to, you know, mitigate that and get that right.
But, you know, I really think, for the most part, this is more an issue of a lack of understanding than it is a lack of willingness to do the right thing once they do understand.
And I’ve seen the right signs. I mean, I’ve seen certain ship owners from nationalities that haven’t always known to be as whale-friendly as some others, you know, actually embracing this, and– and– and working with us to try and find solutions here. And so…things are looking up. The mandatory slowdowns on the East Coast are giving the right whales a fighting chance at survival. The voluntary slowdowns on the West Coast are helping out the blue whales, fin whales, and humpbacks.
Unfortunately, none of these experts can tell you exactly how successful these programs are. They can’t even tell you exactly how many whales get killed every year! For one simple reason: Most whales sink once they die. Here’s Callie Leiphardt.
CALLIE: For every one whale that we see floating or washed up on our beaches, we can almost estimate that ten is happening for every one that we’re seeing. /
POGUE: Internally, is there any anxiety over the fact that you can’t really count how well it’s working?
CALLIE: I want to put my head down at night and say, “I saved five whales today.” (LAUGH) The ocean’s just too large and too dynamic, right, to be able to really pinpoint that. So we have to find these other ways to measure success and wins.
The more ships that slow down, the less likelihood we are gonna have these fatal strikes. Compared to those worst years that we’ve had in California, we’ve seen a dip since then. So that’s also a good sign.
POGUE: A dip in confirmed–strikes?
CALLIE: Confirmed strikes, yes. But it’s still too many, you know? So it’s– it’s a win, but we’re not quite, you know, to the finish line yet, so.
Eventually, Sean Hastings hopes to find ways for you to help, too, through your buying habits and your awareness of the good and bad players.
POGUE: Do I, as a consumer, have any way of knowing when I pick up a package?
SEAN: Not yet. And what we’re working on, and what I would see in the future in the future– next holiday season– look for a whale tail symbol. Look for a symbol that says, “This was shipped across the ocean sustainably.”
POGUE: Okay. So there’s a logo program in the works?
SEAN: We’re working on a campaign to raise brand awareness, as well as consumer awareness.
You know what else you can do? Ping your elected officials.
SEAN: Future regulations are probably necessary to close the gap between 70% cooperation and 100% of the ships slowing down off the coast. It’s good for us, good for the whales, and it’s not gonna impact industry. So I do see a future with speed regulation as being necessary.
POGUE: Great. Yeah. I think– I think that logo– idea would make a big difference.
SEAN: We’ve done our homework: dolphin-safe tuna, fair-trade labor, organics. One of our ideas is to offer to the– the greatest performing crew and ship, paint a whale tail on their bow.
SEAN: Yeah, so that they receive the recognition, as well as coming under the Golden Gate, and you take that lovely walk with your wife, and instead of seeing a floating whale, you see a whale tail emblem on a ship.
That would be nice. Because I’m still really affected by having seen Fran wash ashore with a huge gash in her spine. And ever since that day, I’ve sometimes thought about her baby Aria.
Remember that interview with Ted Cheeseman of Happy Whale.com? The one that one of my “Sunday Morning” colleagues had done for a story of his own?
His producer passed that audio file along to me just as I was putting this episode to bed. And I could not believe what it contained—an update to the story of Fran the humpback whale and her orphaned daughter Aria. Some really amazing news.
TED: Somebody sent me the photo from out on a ship. They texted it to me from on the ship in Monterey Bay, just like, “I think this is Aria, can you confirm it?” And it was just — just joy, just celebration. It was just delightful. You know, I — OK, it’s a bit nerdy, right? — but I started calling people and texting people that had known Fran, that had seen Aria. “I saw the calf!” Her calf survived! You know, too many of the things that we do to the ocean are out of sight, out of mind. Until we can reach out there and see what we’re doing and care about it, we’re not gonna change what we do. And quite frankly, we’ve done a lot. We’ve done a lot to change the way we interact with the ocean, and it’s because people care.