Animals

Rare Migrating Whale Calls Are Recorded Off the New York Coast

You can hear the calls of endangered whale species, as scientists work to reduce collisions with ships.

There are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales in the world, and one of them is off the coast of New York, based on a telltale call recorded by an acoustic buoy on Nov. 14.

The buoy, named "Melville," has also detected the calls of sei and fin whales over the past few weeks. Melville was deployed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Wildlife Conservation Society to monitor whales in near real-time in hopes of preventing deadly encounters between whales and ships.

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Melville is at a listening post 22 miles south of Fire Island in New York Bight. The sei whale there was not expected, according to WHOI scientist Mark Baumgartner, who developed the whale detection software for the acoustic buoy and is a co-leader of the project. "The sei whale detection was something of a surprise," he told Seeker, "as we don't know much about their distribution or their presence in New York waters."

In terms of North Atlantic right whales, Baumgartner said that they "mostly pass through the New York Bight during the fall on their migration to the waters of the southeast U.S., and again in the late winter on their migration back north to the Gulf of Maine - off Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine - and Canadian waters."

Right whales move slowly, grow up to 60 feet long and are especially vulnerable to collisions with ships.

A buoy detected another right whale call on Oct. 26 outside of the New York Harbor Seasonal Management Area. This is one of a series of zones along the eastern seaboard established to protect the whales via speed restrictions during migration periods. Restrictions for the mid-Atlantic zones are in effect between Nov. 1 and April 30.

"There is no system in place to deliver detection information to ships right now, but we hope to make that a reality in the near future," Baumgartner said. "The right whale detection information would be reported directly to ships transiting the New York Bight using the Automatic Identification System, a traffic management and safety system used by ships."

"The ships would use this information to slow down in areas where right whales have been detected," he continued. "There is good research to indicate that the lethality of ship strikes is reduced when large ships are traveling at slower speeds."

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You can hear each of the whales below. For the sake of clarity, the recordings come from an identical buoy, essentially Melville's twin, located in waters off of Massachusetts, where these same whale species have been.

North Atlantic right whales got their name from the first commercial whalers, who deemed them the best species to hunt. Whaling fleets nearly wiped out this species, which now receives international protection but is still in decline due to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

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Photo: North Atlantic right whale mother and calf. Credit: NOAA, Wikimedia Commons. Audio: Courtesy of Mark Baumgartner/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Sei whales are listed as endangered on the IUCN's Red List. Like North Atlantic right whales, they were heavily exploited by commercial whaling fleets before becoming protected by federal and international laws. Little is known about these elusive marine giants. In addition to helping to protect whales, Melville could also provide valuable data about the whales that could affect future management decisions.

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Photo: Sei whale mother and calf. Credit: Christian Khan, NOAA/NEFSC, Wikimedia Commons. Audio: Mark Baumgartner/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, with blue whales being the first. Fin whales can grow to be about 90 feet long. Melville's most recent detection, made today, was of a fin whale. Several detections of fin whales have been made since the buoy was first deployed to its current location on July 23.

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Photo: Fin whale. Credit: Aqqa Rosing-Asvid, Wikimedia Commons. Audio: Mark Baumgartner/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution You can get updates on Melville's whale detections at a web page dedicated to this busy New York Bight buoy. The site only shows whale detections, and for good reason. "We monitor a lot of ship noise," Baumgartner said, emphasizing "lot." "The buoy is near two major shipping lanes, and we hear ships passing through the area almost continuously."