Real-time warning system hears whales, prevents collisions with ships near Boston

Contact: Connie Bruce, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
(607) 254-2491, clb82@cornell.edu


April 7, 2008, ITHACA, NEW YORK--Busy shipping lanes in Massachusetts Bay are safer for endangered North Atlantic right whales this spring, thanks in part to a network of smart buoys. The buoys listen for whale calls and relay information so that ship captains can avoid collisions with the whales.

The new warning system marks a major step forward in protecting the world’s last remaining North Atlantic right whales from ship collisions, a leading cause of death for the species. Fewer than 400 of these whales are estimated to remain. The high-tech buoys were designed by scientists and engineers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The realization of the listening network represents the culmination of a major effort involving scientists, government agencies, and environmental groups.

“Thanks to these efforts, for the first time, ship captains can receive continuous information on where the whales are so they can slow down and avoid tragic collisions,” said Dr. Christopher W. Clark, lead scientist on the project and director of the Bioacoustics Research Program. “Scientific studies indicate that the death of just one or two breeding females a year will lead to the population’s extinction. Slowing down for whales will make a big difference.”

Ship traffic in Massachusetts Bay is increasing, and so too are the risks to whales. Vessels carrying liquefied natural gas to Excelerate Energy, L.L.C.’s new Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port travel through the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an important area for whales. To meet permit requirements to reduce the operational risk of ship strikes, Excelerate Energy contracted the work on the buoy listening network and monitoring system and has trained all its crew members to watch for marine mammals and sea turtles as the vessel travels to and from the port.

Dr. Clark said that the system began detecting right whale calls the very same day it went online. The buoys are programmed to listen for a right whale’s signature call, a deep rising “whoop.” Once this acoustic information is detected, it is sent via cell phone or satellite to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where expert analysts confirm the calls before posting a warning.

When alerted, ships supplying the deepwater port are required to slow to 10 knots and look out for whales. “We understand why this system is necessary and we’re happy to be part of a model that can be duplicated around the world,” said Excelerate CEO Rob Bryngelson.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) encourages--but doesn’t require--other ships to slow down as well. Ships can receive alerts through the NOAA Northeast Right Whale Sighting Advisory System. The public can view a map showing where the whales are being detected by visiting www.listenforwhales.org.

Although right whales have migrated along the Atlantic Coast for millennia, places like Massachusetts Bay that were once safe havens are now crisscrossed by commercial shipping lanes, cluttered with fishing lines, and buried in the near-deafening noise of traffic.

Dr. Clark is spearheading an effort to monitor whales at locations all along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida, using auto-detection buoys and spherical devices called “pop-ups” that record sounds underwater for several months, then pop up to the surface so the data can be retrieved. With the help of these technologies, scientists hope to reduce the immediate threat of death from collision--and to address the long-term stresses to whales from underwater noises that interfere with their communication.

“We need to listen to these whales,” Dr. Clark said. “And we need to prevent any more from being killed if they are to have any hope of surviving in this modern world.”


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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology wishes to acknowledge all who have dedicated decades of hard work to conduct research, educate decision makers, and speak out for the highly endangered right whale and its deteriorating habitat. In particular, this includes members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and numerous scientists and personnel from the New England Aquarium, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.