Robotic watercraft located nine endangered right whales in the Gulf of Maine in early December, which allowed biologists to alert the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to sent out an advisory to mariners to decrease speeds and thereby reduce the chances of a cetacean collision.

The robo-biologists, called gliders, are programed to identify the calls of sei, fin, humpback and right whales. The gliders alternately dive to listen for whale calls and surface to beam observations to a satellite.

“We put two gliders out in the central Gulf of Maine to find whales for us,” said project leader Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in a press release. “They reported hearing whales within hours of hitting the water. They did their job perfectly.”

Gliders allow oceanographers to keep tabs on more whales for a longer period of time than humans can with observations from boats and airplanes. Normally the cold temperatures and rough seas of fall and winter make whale studies difficult. However, the right whale is believed to use the Gulf of Maine for mating between November and January. The gliders make it possible to study this important part of the whales’ behavior.

Transmissions sent from the gliders also allow for nearly immediate information on whale positions, which allows mariners to be advised of the oceanic behemoths’ positions. That could help save the lives of whales that are still struggling to recover from centuries of whaling and reduced food supplies caused by overfishing.

“Knowing where right whales are helps you manage interactions between an endangered species and the human activities that impact those species,” said Sofie Van Parijs, leader of NOAA’s Passive Acoustic Research Group in a press release.


Chief scientist Mark Baumgartner secures a glider (with its wings removed) after it was recovered Dec. 4 from its three-week mission. (CREDIT: Nadine Lysiak, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)