Scientists Mount Assault to Save Endangered Right Whales

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
August 22, 2001

A species is undoubtedly in trouble when each member is identified by a serial number and listed in a catalog along with an accompanying mug shot. The species in question is the North Atlantic right whale, which number only about 350.

Boat collisions and injuries from fishing lines have contributed greatly to the death of right whales. But scientists are optimistic that better knowledge of the creature's biology and behavior coupled with recent technological innovations could enable them to rescue the species.

In January, researchers plan to test a new type of buoy that will alert ships to the presence of whales nearby. Fishermen, meanwhile, are working to design fishing lines that hug the ocean floor, which would prevent entanglements with whales.

Marine biologists have obtained skin samples of right whales and are examining them to determine the health, gender ratio, and genetic makeup of the population.

Researchers led by Christopher Clark of the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University have designed an underwater microphone to record whale "talk." The device, called a "pop-up buoy," is deployed by a ship and sinks to the ocean floor, hovering like a balloon tied to a brick. It contains a computer and hard disks that can store up to two months of recordings, and eventually pops up to the surface so scientists can collect the data.

"These buoys allow us to build a much richer picture of whale life and activity," said Clark.

Last year, Clark and his colleagues used "pop-up buoys" near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to track the movements of whales. Sounds from each of the whales enabled the scientists to calculate its position. "Then we just connect all the dots to see where the whale is going," said Clark.

Big Picture, Detailed Samples

The recordings and the information about the whales' wanderings is giving scientists "an extraordinary picture of whale life," said Clark. "We see whales coming together in these big, very socially active groups, where they scream away for a few hours then go away and start up some place else," he said.

Early next year the researchers will hitch a version of their microphone-recorder device to buoys specially designed for the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, which relays weather and ocean data to a Web site 24 hours a day. Clark hopes that by adding information about the whereabouts of the whales, cargo ships and fishing vessels can plan their routes to avoid hazards to the animals.

In another strand of the research, Moira Brown, a marine biologist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, is obtaining genetic information about the right whale population. From a boat, she uses a modified crossbow to collect skin samples when the whales surface. Scientists have skin samples from about 75 percent of the species.

Continued on Next Page >>


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