Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Buoying Hopes for Whales

May 1, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

buoying hopes for whales title                                                                                                                                                                    ©Julie Larsen Maher

Whales have had a long and uneasy relationship with vessels over the years, and vice versa. While we’ve tried to understand the swimming patterns of these giant creatures so that we might best plot ways to avoid hurting them, it’s been haphazard in the past.

This is where the New York Bight Buoy comes in — it’s a project spearheaded by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the New York Aquarium, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) that was launched in June 2016. In its simplest terms, a whale-call detecting buoy was located in the area off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean known as the New York Bight. This large geographic area extends from Cape May Inlet in New Jersey to Montauk Point on Long Island.

The buoy detects whale calls and catalogs them by type: humpback, right, fin, and sei. The data collected in the winter of 2016-2017 revealed that fin whales showed up nearly every day, right whales showed up nearly as frequently, and humpback and sei whales were more sporadic. The data is updated daily at

Mark Baumgartner, an associate scientist in the biology department at WHOI, developed the listening software that the buoy uses. He has been with the project since it first started and explains its history. The core technology to detect marine mammals from autonomous platforms in near real time was developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the late 2000s and was first used on a Slocum ocean glider [an autonomous vehicle which moves up and down in the ocean] in 2012. The buoy application was developed shortly thereafter, with initial tests in 2013, and our first long-term buoy deployment in 2015.” buoy-infographic copy-11-01-01

In conversation with Baumgartner, I remark that the results seemed to indicate a lot of fin whale detections, and wondered what he’s gathered from the buoy project thus far. “There are indeed a lot of fin whale detections, which was a surprise to me,” Baumgartner responds. “We were also getting pretty steady detections of right whales between November and February, which was also surprising to me. I was not expecting right whales to be present throughout the winter.”

According to Baumgartner, right whales were thought to migrate through the New York Bight region in the fall and again in the spring, but “we have been getting right whale calls throughout the winter. This is especially concerning given the proximity of the buoy to the shipping lanes, which means that the right whales we’re hearing are almost surely swimming in those lanes.

“Right whales are of particular concern since they are highly endangered (there are only 525 right whales left in the world, and they all live on the east coast of the United States and Canada), so we definitely want the shipping industry to be aware of right whales and to slow down when they are detected.”

I wonder if the knowledge of whales being in the area has caused shipping vessels to adjust and reduce speed, but Baumgartner offers nothing positive about collision avoidance measures. “We do not know if any ships are using the information from the buoy to slow down yet,” he says. “The data are only available on the website for right now, but we’re working on ways to make the data much more accessible to mariners so they can see the whale data directly on their navigation computers. Then they’ll have the information they need to decide whether to slow down or not.”

Similar projects are underway or in development in other areas, per Baumgartner. “The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center is operating a similar buoy just south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to help the Coast Guard monitor whales in an area where they conduct training exercises. We are also using this same technology on mobile ocean gliders to survey for marine mammals off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s a really exciting new capability for scientists, conservationists, and federal managers to help study and protect the whales that live in our waters.”

Word of the New York Bight Buoy and other such projects needs to reach the shipping industry, related maritime enterprises, and the public. Baumgartner says, “My colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Aquarium are doing a great job spreading the word to the public.”

©Julie Larsen Maher

©Julie Larsen Maher

Outreach and education must continue as Baumgartner outlines “plans to make a display at the aquarium that focuses on the buoy and reaching out to the shipping industry to make them aware of the buoy and the plight of the large whales that inhabit the New York Bight.”

Recreational boaters, tied so deeply to the water and its inhabitants, can help spread awareness, says Baumgartner. “We hope the information provided by the buoy will help the public understand what amazing animals are living in their ocean backyard and will help to develop a sense of stewardship for these animals. The buoy can help them learn about which whales live in the New York Bight, and what challenges these species face.”

Baumgartner says boaters have a great vantage point as well. “Most people don’t ever see a whale, but recreational boaters have that wonderful opportunity.”

By Michael Griffin

webPlus_web_green1    Video of the buoy launch



is a native New Yorker who has many fond memories of going deep-sea fishing in his youth. He lives near Long Island with his wife, son, and cat (who is sitting in his lap as he types this).

Comments are closed.