High-Tech Sound Detectors to Warn Ships of Right Whales

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 9, 2008
North Atlantic right whales have always been noisy animals—and now that racket may save their lives.

Scientists have engineered a high-tech system of submerged listening posts stretching across 55 miles (88 kilometers) of Massachusetts Bay that can detect the sounds of the critically endangered animals.

The network is designed to protect the whales from deadly collisions in the busy shipping lanes that run through Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. About a third of all right whale deaths worldwide are attributed to ship collisions.

When whale sounds are detected, cell phone and satellite technologies relay the information from buoy to shore in nearly real-time, so that ship captains can be warned to slow down and keep a sharp lookout.

The protection measures are a critical step for protecting the few remaining right whales. After being hunted to near-extinction, only 350 to 400 individuals remain, and experts say their populations have not grown much over the past century.

The animals frequent the shallow—and very busy—waters within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the eastern U.S. coastline.

"These guys are in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Christopher Clark, of Cornell University's Bioacoustics Research Program.

Every single whale counts—"particularly if it is a breeding female," Clark added.

Peaceful Coexistence?

The new high-tech protection comes courtesy of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and a Texas-based energy company's desire to build a deepwater port near Stellwagen.

In order for Excelerate Energy to deliver liquefied natural gas to a new offshore port near Gloucester, its behemoth tankers will use the shipping lane that crosses the sanctuary.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials, concerned about the project's impact on whales and other animals in the sanctuary, requested that the system be put in place to protect them.

Excelerate is footing the bill—about $3.5 million a year. The system must remain running as long as their port operates.

Excelerate captains currently get a telephone call within 15 or 20 minutes of a whale detection.

"We have trained all of our ships' crews in marine mammal detection," said Mike Trammel, Excelerate's director of environmental affairs.

"When we get a call to the bridge that says we have a detection at one of the buoys and gives the latitude and longitude, they drop to 10 knots [about 11.5 miles an hour] or less and put a designated lookout on the bridge to start scanning the horizons."

But the massive tankers represent only a tiny fraction of maritime traffic in the area. The near real-time tracking system is available for the public to view online, and NOAA officials are placing a high priority on getting other ships to voluntarily follow the guidelines.

To get more vessels on board, NOAA is working with the U.S. Coast Guard to migrate the entire alert process to an automated reporting system.

Whale data will be delivered directly to ships via the system used on modern vessels to track positions and movements of ships at sea, replicating the information from the Web site.

"Through collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard, we can sit in the office and watch all the [boat] traffic in the sanctuary," added Leila Hatch, an ocean noise specialist at Stellwagen. This allows experts to gauge the program's success.

"So we can look at the response of all traffic to these detections and get a sense if they are being utilized."

If the system proves effective it could be expanded along the Eastern seaboard. Tests are already underway near Brunswick, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida.

Familiar Waters Now Full of Mystery

The buoy system was designed primarily to prevent collisions, but it has the potential to deliver a scientific windfall.

Clark, of Cornell, describes the network as an "environmental nervous system" that might be fitted with all types of sensors to capture a more complete snapshot of the marine environment.

Meanwhile the listening posts have produced some mysteries—such as why so many whales were found in northern waters this winter when they might have been in warmer southern locales.

Other strange sounds from the system have scientists scratching their heads and wondering just what's living in very familiar coastal waters.

"We don't know very much at all," Clark said. "We pick up a singing humpback, or a right whale—that's obvious. But what are all these other things? They aren't man-made; they are biological.

"Ten miles off Boston, in the year 2008, we now have a larger collection of unknown marine animals in our database than ones that we know. That's amazing."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.