Microphones in bay could
help right whales
BY ALISON AULD
The sound rises up from the ocean floor like a deep, throaty groan.
The calls, similar to the plaintive moans of an elephant,
are the mysterious communications of the North Atlantic right whale and are
becoming an increasingly important tool in trying to save the giant marine
"You can use this data for monitoring when the
animals arrive, when they leave, how they move on a day-to-day basis," says
Chris Taggart, a fisheries oceanographer at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Mr. Taggart and a team of scientists are part of a
growing research community that is using the whale's distinct calls to learn
more about its social habits and to find ways to protect it from its biggest
threats - ship strikes and fishing gear.
group placed an array of hydrophones, or . submersible microphones, on the
bottom of the bay, where some of the world's 300 remaining right whales
congregate every summer to feed on rich supplies of plankton.
Scientists recorded sounds for about a week and are
trying to isolate and identify them as right-whale calls. Once they do, they're
hoping to have hydrophones continuously listen for the whales so they can alert
ships passing through the busy channel.
from permanent hydrophones would be almost instantly passed on to a central
traffic-control station and then relayed to vessels, allowing them to reroute
and steer clear of the animals.
"Most of the information
now used to have vessels avoid whales is based on either very intermittent
airborne surveys and opportunistic ship observations," Mr. Taggart said after
returning from the bay last week.
"That's useless at
night and in the fog and it's not real time. With acoustic monitoring, one
could monitor continuously and you can use that information directly to alter
"We're just trying to solve the problem."
Every year, the right whale population is threatened as
the slow-moving animals are struck and killed by vessels steaming through their
habitats. Scientists say part of the problem is that there is no proof the
whales know what a ship is and that it can harm them.
It's just one of many mysteries surrounding the creature,
whose communications are also being studied for their social meaning.
Susan Parks, an American scientist working out of Lubek,
Maine, has been collecting audio recordings of the whale for several weeks in
the bay, hoping to learn more about an animal whose behaviour still puzzles
"They have a pretty diverse repertoire and it
hasn't gotten the same attention as humpbacks because they don't really seem to
produce a song," says Ms. Parks.
Ms. Parks is analyzing
the species by playing back their own calls to groups that congregate on the
water's surface. In many cases, they are drawn to the sounds, indicating they
might use them to attract other whales for socialization or mating purposes.
What's unusual about the right whales is that it is
usually the female who is making the calls and she is often the only one in a
group of several males.