May 6, 2008

Slow Down: Whale Crossing

The thirteen buoys of the Right Whale Listening Network listen for
endangered right whales crossing shipping channels, and provide a
warning to ships to slow down. The smart buoys were developed at the
Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The busy shipping lanes in Massachusetts Bay (and elsewhere along the east coast) have been the site of deadly collisions
between the gentle whales and merchant ships. The Right Whale Listening
Network uses auto-detection smart buoys with a listening radius of five
miles to recognize the right whale's call; the buoys record the sound
and upload it to the network's website and to the Northeast U.S. Right
Whale Sighting Advisory System, operated by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Ship captains can view a near-real-time graphic that shows the positions of recently recorded whale sounds.
It takes as little as twenty minutes for a buoy to detect a right whale, and then update the warning system.

about 400 right whales remain; the Listening Network was specifically
designed in response to the development of a new liquefied natural gas
terminal built offshore of Boston. NOAA mandated the development of the
system to prevent collisions between 70 ton right whales and 90,000 ton
supply tankers. The whales are also a source of tourist-related revenue
for the region; see this right whale video.

The Lab or Ornithology will operate the buoy array over the expected 40
year life of the gas terminal under a $47 million contract. LNG tankers
must slow to 10 knots in response to buoy alerts.

"For the first time, we can go online and hear up-to-the-minute
voices of calling whales, and see where those whales are in the ocean
off Boston and Cape Cod," said Christopher Clark, director of the
Bioacoustics Research Program at the Lab of Ornithology. "Better yet,
those calls immediately get put to use in the form of timely warnings
to ship captains."

I think this kind of interspecies communication and cooperation is
both heart-warming and a little bit science-fictional. If you liked
this story, you might also want to read about a group of scientists who
have recorded calls from a whale that seems to be the only one of its
kind; see The Loneliest Whale and Ray Bradbury.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of