Thermal imaging could be used to prevent ships striking whales by detecting the heat from their bodies.

A study led by Martin Stanley from marine research organisation Ocean Life Survey, in partnership with Ports of Auckland, has been trialing the use of thermal imaging to detect surfacing whales in the Hauraki Gulf.

Mr Stanley said the aim was to explore whether it could successfully detect a Bryde's whale at a distance that would allow commercial vessels to avoid a strike.

Fifteen Bryde's whales are known to have been killed by commercial shipping in the Hauraki Gulf between 2006 and 2012.

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About 46 of the whales live in the Gulf with up to 159 more seasonally resident. Ship strike is the whale's greatest cause of death.

Other large whale species that visit the Gulf include the Blue, Fin, Sei, Humpback, and Southern Right whale.

Mr Stanley said the study has found whales can be detected by the heat of their bodies and breath.

"The next stage would be to develop our findings with the technology into a practical application that could be used by the international shipping industry and port authorities around the world," he said.

"We now hope to find commercial and industry partners who we can work with to achieve this objective."

Ports of Auckland supported the research as part of its work to mitigate ship strike.

Chief executive Tony Gibson said the company had been working with shipping lines to reduce shipping speed, which came at a significant cost.

"If we can find a way for ships to spot and avoid whales, this could be of significant benefit to the whales as well as importers and exporters."