NEWBURYPORT — For the first time, it's possible to stand on Plum Island and know for sure whether there are whales swimming offshore — if you happen to have your iPhone or iPad with you.
A new application absorbs scientific data on whales as they traverse the offshore waters and plots their general location on an easy-to-read nautical map. It's the first program of its type, said Jake Levenson, a marine biologist who helped design it.
"This has never been done before," said Levenson, 34, who lived for a few years in Gloucester and considers the coast off Plum Island, Crane Beach and Cape Ann as his favorite waters.
"We can take whale location information from multiple sources and make it easy to understand."
The app, called WhaleAlert, hit Apple's iTunes store late last week and is already proving to be a big hit. More than 5,000 people have downloaded the free program, Levenson said.
The app was developed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. It's designed primarily to alert mariners to the location of endangered right whales in order to avoid collisions. Large ships are required to alert authorities when they enter an area where endangered whales are known to be, and ships in those zones can't go faster than 10 knots, which is 11.5 mph.
But you don't have to be a ship captain to use it. Anyone with an iPhone or iPad can access the program and track the general location of whale pods.
"This is bringing conservation into the 21st century," Levenson said. "The challenge for us has been: Can we make information from multiple sources easy to understand?"
The program uses various data to map the location of whales. One source is the sound of whales communicating underwater, which is picked up by undersea microphones paid for by a liquefied natural gas company as a condition for federal government permission to build an offshore LNG port off Gloucester. The microphones are in shipping channels in Massachusetts Bay, south of Cape Ann.
It also uses information gathered by NOAA, the federal agency that tracks whale movements with aircraft and ships. The agency monitors whales as they move through local waters, such as the feeding grounds of Jeffrey's Ledge about 25 miles offshore, and Ipswich Bay, which laps against the southern end of Plum Island. But NOAA's information is highly technical and isn't easy for the average person to understand. The app translates it onto a map.
The app doesn't pinpoint the precise location of individual whales. Instead, it maps a grid area in which whale activity has been reported. The grid areas are often a few square miles.
Right whales are well into their annual migration route right now. They winter off Florida and in springtime head up the East Coast toward their summer feeding grounds in Canada's Bay of Fundy and beyond. A few weeks ago, several whales were seen off the outermost tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown. Within the past few days, pods have been spotted — and mapped by the app — off Cape Ann, about 12 miles southeast of Newburyport.
It's possible for whales to come in fairly close to the waters off the North Shore. Levenson said their movements are tied to their food sources, which makes the precise movement unpredictable.
"You never know what's going to happen," he said.