Acoustic buoy lets scientists eavesdrop on whales in real-time

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Whales inhabiting the waters off New York and New Jersey can now be heard in real-time thanks to an acoustic monitoring buoy created by a consortium of marine scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) New York Aquarium and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The hi-tech device allows the group to track – and better study and protect – several species of endangered baleen whales found year-round in the busy waters of the New York Bight.

Scientists teamed up to create the buoy which stands 6 ft (1.8 m) above the surface and measures 4 ft (1.2 m) in diameter. It's connected to the sea floor 125 ft (38 m) down by means of stretch hoses, and houses an acoustic instrument to record and process whale sounds from a hydrophone, or underwater microphone. The sounds picked up by the instrument are processed by software developed by marine ecologist Mark Baumgartner, and sent along the stretch hoses to the buoy, where they're broadcast to a computer on shore via the Iridium satellite system.

Located between two shipping lanes, including the Port of New York and New Jersey, the busiest on the U.S. east coast, the buoy and the information it collects will help scientists piece together a better picture on how the whales are affected by such high levels of ship traffic and noise. Used together with other technologies and surveys, researchers can then better understand threats to the whales' movements and work with government agencies to safeguard their habitat.

Besides ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement, man-made noises from ships is especially worrisome for whales, who use sounds to navigate and communicate. Seven baleen whale species are found in New York Bight, including humpback and blue whales, highly endangered North Atlantic right whales, and the fin, minke, sei and sperm whale. The acoustic buoy will also help raise awareness about the New York Bight's diverse marine life by making the data publicly available on WHOI websites, and through the Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit at WCS New York Aquarium.

Soon to be deployed by WHOI is another real-time acoustic device, this one autonomous, known as the wave glider. Sitting atop the water, the wave- and solar-powered device works together with the buoy and other technologies to more efficiently conduct whale surveys, while also identifying species based on sound characteristics. Besides whales, the WCS also studies sharks and rays in New York Bight.

The video below provides an overview of the acoustic monitoring buoy.

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