High-tech buoy lets scientists listen to whales in real-time off New York's coast

whale listening buoy
© Wildlife Conservation Society

The Northern Atlantic is home to several species of whale, some highly endangered, but the marine giants have to share the space with some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. While technologies have been developed to help ships steer clear of the animals, the animals still face major obstacles from the associated noise, fishing equipment and ship strikes.

Researchers at Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have joined together to gather more information about the whales living in the New York Bight, the coastal waters ranging from Montauk, New York to Cape May, New Jersey, that include some of those incredibly busy shipping lanes.

The team has developed an acoustic buoy that will allow scientists to hear the sounds of whales in the area in near real-time, which will give them a better understanding of how their lives are affected by shipping activity.

The round buoy is four feet in diameter with a six-foot mast rising above the ocean surface. It's attached with stretchable hoses to a weighted frame that lies 125 feet below on the ocean floor. The frame houses the acoustic instrument that records and processes the sounds picked up by a hydrophone, a special underwater microphone. The detected sounds are sent from the instrument to the buoy through the hoses where they are then broadcast to shore via a satellite system.

“This technology allows us to monitor the presence of several species of baleen whales in near real time, and to use that knowledge to better study and protect these endangered species in the extremely busy waters of the New York Bight," said WHOI’s Dr. Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist and co-lead of the project

The buoy was just deployed on June 23 and is located between two major shipping lanes 22 miles south of Fire Island. The buoy will listen for the seven different whale species that call the area home: humpback, blue, the critically endangered North Atlantic right, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales. The scientists hope that the information will help them understand the movements of the whales and the threats they face in the area.

"The acoustic buoy data will help us to better understand when and where whales are present in New York's waters, particularly in those places where we have little information on how whales are affected by ship traffic and ocean noise," said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of WCS’s Ocean Giants Program and co-lead of the project.

The goal for the project is to give researchers new ideas for protecting the marine giants from threats and strategies for working with government agencies to conserve their habitats.

Tags: Conservation | Technology | Whales

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