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Scientists now listening for whales in New York waters with real-time acoustic buoy

June 27, 2016 From Wildlife Conservation Society
The buoy was deployed on June 23. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS
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Scientists working for WCS’s (Wildlife Conservation Society) New York Aquarium, which is located in Coney Island, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) now have an ear for the New York region’s biggest voices and singers: the whales of New York Bight.

On June 23, the WCS New York Aquarium-WHOI team successfully deployed a high-tech acoustic monitoring buoy in New York waters that will enable scientists to eavesdrop on some of the world’s largest animals.

The buoy itself is four feet in diameter and its mast stands six feet above the sea surface. It is connected with patented “stretch hoses” to a weighted frame that sits 125 feet below on the sea floor. The frame carries a unique acoustic instrument that records and processes sound from an underwater microphone called a hydrophone. Information from detected sounds is transmitted from the instrument to the buoy through the stretch hoses, and to shore through the Iridium satellite system. The buoy is located between two major shipping lanes entering New York Harbor, 22 miles south of Fire Island’s west end.

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WHOI engineers developed the buoy, stretch hoses and the acoustic instrument, and WHOI’s Dr. Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist and co-lead of the joint WCS New York Aquarium-WHOI project, developed the software used by the acoustic instrument and led the integration of the instrument into the buoy. 

“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 Baumgartner.

“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 joint WCS New York Aquarium-WHOI project. “When used in conjunction with other surveys and technologies, this buoy will give us a more holistic picture on how whales use this marine habitat and how to better protect whales in our own backyard.”

While similar buoys have been deployed by WHOI off the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine this year, the near real-time technology is being used for the first time in the waters of New York Bight — a region that ranges between Montauk, New York and Cape May, New Jersey — and will help researchers better understand the movements of, and threats to, the whales swimming in regional waters. The monitoring of the whales in the New York Bight is supported by The G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation.

Containing some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, New York Bight is also home to seven species of great whales, including the humpback whale — known for its acrobatics and long, haunting songs — and the largest animal ever to exist on earth, the blue whale. The highly endangered North Atlantic right whale — one of the world’s rarest whale species — migrates through New York waters, and fin, sei, minke and sperm whales have also been seen or heard in the waters of New York Bight.

The digital acoustic monitoring buoy now floating in New York Bight will listen for whale vocalizations and other noise, and will relay information about the sounds it collects to a shore-side computer at WHOI. Analyst Julianne Gurnee of the Passive Acoustic Research Group at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, a long-time partner with WHOI in the development of the real-time acoustic technology, will review this information for whale calls. The analyzed data will be made available to the public through web sites at WHOI and through the WCS New York Aquarium, in its “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit and as part of its Blue York Campaign.


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