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Using Buoys to Detect and Locate North Atlantic Right Whales in Shipping Channels

Using Buoys to Detect and Locate North Atlantic Right Whales in Shipping Channels

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is conducting a bioacoustics research program called the Right Whale Listening Network off the coast of Cape Cod.  Down the center of the shipping lane they have installed 10 Buoys 5 miles apart equipped with submerged hydrophones that can pick up whale calls for up to 5 miles.  After a process of elimination, the acoustics most likely to be a right whale are then relayed back to a 24-hour monitoring crew. 

Here’s how it works:

The hydrophones hang 60 to 120 feet below the buoys and relay acoustical data to an onboard computer system equipped with special software programmed to focus on sounds ranging from 50 to 350 Hertz.  Next, the software estimates each sound’s similarity to a right whale up-call by assessing a dozen characteristics such as duration and the starting, minimum, and maximum frequencies.  Right whale up-calls are typically 1 or 2 seconds long and normally do not exceed 2 seconds.  Finalizing this process of elimination, the on-board computer will then give each sound a number from 1 to 10, 10 being the most likely to be a right whale. 

The unit keeps a running tally of the 10 highest scoring sound clips and relays the information every 20 minutes via cell phone or satellite to a server at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Ten sound clips per buoy transmission mean that the 10-buoy array can yield up to one hundred 2‑second clips every 20 minutes.  Reviewing an entire day’s recordings from all 10 buoys takes analysts 1 to 2 hours.  Some days 90% of the clips recorded are actually right whales and some days only 10% are actually right whales.  The main recipients of whale alerts are natural gas ships operated by Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port.  However, analysts keep an up-to-date Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (SAS) available online and distributed by email.  Once a right whale has been detected, all vessels headed to the Natural Gas Terminal are encouraged to slow down to no more than 10 knots.  Also, U.S.  law requires vessels 65 feet and longer to travel at ≤10 knots in this area during certain times of year (see www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/shipstrike  for more information).

(Video Courtesy of: Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

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