Military Technology Tracks Blue Whales
October 7, 2012

Submarine Detection Devices Being Used To Track Endangered Blue Whales

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

Military technology originally designed to detect enemy submarines may seem like an odd tool in the fight to keep blue whales from becoming extinct, but that's exactly what one team of scientists is attempting to do.

The devices in question are sonobuoys -- a relatively small and expendable floating sonar system that is typically dropped or ejected from aircraft or ships as part of anti-submerged vessel defense maneuvers. However, according to AAP reports, members of the Australian Antarctic Division have repurposed the instruments to help keep the world's largest mammals alive and kicking.

As part of their efforts, scientists with the Antarctic program have taken directional sonobuoys and used them to detect the low-frequency songs of the blue whale (or Balaenoptera musculus), even if the creatures are hundreds of kilometers away. Each of the sonobuoys can be used to track the whale songs for up to 15 months, according to the wire service, and will probably be used to study their migratory patterns beginning in January 2013.

According to Reuters reporter Pauline Askin, the technique is "a big improvement on the standard visual method of monitoring whales" and to date it has allowed them to record over 500 hours worth of audio, including more than 20,000 blue whale songs.

Askin noted that over a 20-day period earlier this year, there were more than 100 blue whale sightings recorded by scientists over a 10,000 square km area using the sonobuoys. The researchers are touting a 90% success rate when it comes to using the defense technology to track the elusive whales.

On the heels of that success rate, government officials in Australia are hoping that the devices will help keep the massive marine mammals, which were nearly wiped out by industrial whaling in the early 20th century, from dying out completely, the Reuters reporter explained.

“Blue whales are under threat of extinction and improved scientific knowledge will help in the conservation and recovery of the species. This research reinforces Australia´s commitment to non-lethal research of whales," Environment Minister Tony Burke said during a demonstration of the acoustic technology on Thursday. "This breakthrough project again shows you don´t have to kill a whale to study it."