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.

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