Right Whale Projects

by Pat Leonard last modified 2007-06-11 16:43

Doing Right by the Right Whale

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) is part of a multifaceted effort to save the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. The half-dozen research projects it is conducting all fall under the heading of the Northern Right Whale Project. BRP partners with other marine research organizations and educational institutions to reduce death and injury to the alarmingly few individuals of this species left in the wild.

Northern right whale with calf. Photo:
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation

Common name:
right whale
Scientific name: Eubalaena glacialis
Average Size:
14 meters, 43-56 feet (females longer by 1 meter)
25,000-40,000 lbs.
est. 60 years
est. 350
highly endangered


The right whale was so named because it was the “right” whale to hunt. Right whales move slowly, remain fairly close to the surface, do not sink after being killed, and yield a lot of oil. Commercial whaling brought right whales close to extinction. They have been protected since 1935.

North Atlantic right whales frequent coastal waters from the Canadian Maritimes to Cape Cod during summer. They migrate to their calving grounds farther south in the winter. The migratory corridor and calving grounds intersect busy shipping lanes. Unfortunately, right whales have no natural aversion to ships and do not swim away when a vessel approaches. Most right whale deaths and injuries are caused by collisions with ships and entanglement in commercial fishing gear.

Two northern right whales
Photo: NOAA

The whales’ biology works against them as well. Females only give birth to one calf every three to four years and the whales’ mortality rate outpaces the number of new calves being born.

Much of the work to protect the remaining right whales is taking place in important feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine, which includes the Bay of Fundy and Cape Cod Bay. Work is also taking place in the Great South Channel. In the United States, both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act specify that these animals must be protected. The Bioacoustics Research Program uses its detection and monitoring devices with sound analysis software to alert partner organizations to the presence of right whales so ships can avoid them. This technology is also used in studying the health and habits of these whales, about which so little is known.

Right whale breaching
Photo: NOAA

Listening for Whales

The BRP Northern Right Whale Project is currently monitoring the Atlantic Coast for the presence of the whales via six projects. The primary goal is to keep the whales from being harmed by human activities:

  • Great South Channel Monitoring Project
  • Cape Cod Bay Monitoring Project
  • Southeast Fisheries Monitoring Project
  • Jeffreys Ledge Monitoring Project
  • Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Monitoring Project
  • Northern Right Whale Buoy Project

It’s a Buoy!

The Northern Right Whale Buoy Project is in its pilot stage. When fully operational in 2007, eight buoys will be anchored off the Massachusetts coast in Cape Cod Bay, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and the Great South Channel. Each buoy is designed for automatic real-time detection of right whales. To do this, a buoy is equipped with an underwater microphone and a radio telemetry system that will transmit messages via cell or satellite phone to a computer server at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The buoy “reports in” every four hours to indicate whether or not right whales have been detected.

A buoy outfitted with recording equipment
will detect the sounds of whales in real time
to prevent collisions with ships.
Photo by Ildar Urazghildiiev/BRP
The bioacoustics team has developed the buoy electronics package as well as a web site that allows for daily review of the data sent in from the buoys. Government agencies and the shipping industry can use this information to head off collisions with right whales. Some of the buoys are placed in deeper, offshore waters while others are anchored in shallower, coastal waters.

This unique three-year whale-detection project is funded by a NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service grant and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. BRP is collaborating with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the construction, placement, and servicing of the buoys.

Underwater Ears

"Pop-ups" are the technology of choice for the remaining five right while monitoring projects. These devices are marine autonomous recording units (MARUs) developed by BRP engineers. A pop-up consists of an external hydrophone, external transducer, batteries, electronics for recording sounds underwater, and an acoustic release mechanism, all packaged in a 17-inch (43 cm) Benthos glass sphere. Sounds from the external hydrophone are stored on a hard drive, while the transducer provides two-way communication between researchers and the pop-up. At the conclusion of a mission, the pop-up is sent an acoustic message from a ship telling it to release itself from its anchor. It breaks loose from its anchor and "pops up" to the surface. The data are downloaded at the Lab and studied using a variety of sound analysis software. This is known as “passive acoustic monitoring” because researchers are simply listening as opposed to actively producing sound to investigate the ocean as would be the case with sonar, for example.

Pop-Up Listening Posts

Completed pop-up, ready
to deploy
In spring 2006, the year-long Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Monitoring Project was launched. The goal is to measure the level of noise coming from shipping in the sanctuary, whether it is for military, commercial, private, or research purposes. Ten autonomous recording units have been deployed measuring underwater sounds between 0 and 1000 Hz. The data they collect will be used to measure human-generated noise levels that BRP director Chris Clark describes as a “rising tide of acoustic smog.” It’s believed the amount of human-made noise is interfering with the whales’ navigation and communication.
The Southeast Fisheries Monitoring Project began in fall 2004. For this project, lines of three to four pop-ups are deployed off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The goal is to get a better fix on the number and distribution of right whales in the mid-Atlantic area. The bioacoustics team is carrying out this research in collaboration with NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center.

The Jeffreys Ledge Monitoring Project is focused on a shallower tract of ocean created by a glacial deposit. It extends 33 miles from the Massachusetts coast to just southeast of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. A portion of it falls into the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The Ledge is one of the most important fish habitat areas in the Gulf of Maine, but it was closed to commercial fishing in 1997 to protect critically low levels of cod, haddock, and other bottom fish. It is the subject of scientific studies to determine if these stocks can rebound. In recent years the importance of the Ledge to right whales has also been recognized. During the fall especially, right whales appear to use the Ledge as feeding ground. BRP is partnering with the Whale Center of New England to keep tabs on the numbers of right whales using the Ledge.
Readout from a pop-up

The Cape Cod Bay Monitoring Project has been running since winter 2001. The pop-ups moored in the bay are gathering long-term data about where, when, and in what numbers right whales are present in these waters. The pop-ups have proven to be an effective and complementary tactic in monitoring Cape Cod Bay since they can record at any time, in any weather, at a fraction of what it costs to conduct an aerial survey.

The program that started it all was the Great South Channel Monitoring Project. In May 2000, in collaboration with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, BRP launched six pop-ups in the channel east of Nantucket. They were anchored 50 to 100 feet under water and recorded right whale calls and ship noise for 40 days, the first effort to learn if an underwater acoustic net would be useful in locating whales and diverting ship traffic.

Sound Decisions Based on Sound Science

Right whale surfacing
Photo: NOAA

To listen and understand what right whale sounds mean is a major challenge. Studies of whale communication to date suggest there may be a correlation between whale behavior and vocalization, depending upon which individual is making which kind of sound, and its timing, frequency, and duration. Right whales have six call types, classified as screams, gunshots, blows, upcalls, warbles, and downcalls. The work done by the Bioacoustics Research Program ensures that scientists have the tools they need to collect and analyze these sounds—to really listen to what these highly endangered mammals are saying, and use this information to promote sound policy decisions based on sound science.

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