Woods Hole Robots Listen for Endangered Whales

Chief scientist Mark Baumgartner secures a glider (with its wings removed) after it was recovered Dec. 4 from its three-week mission. The gliders are equipped with an underwater microphone and an iridium satellite antenna. Photo/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/Nadine Lysiak

The following excerpt appeared in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution e-newsletter for January 2013:

Two robots equipped with instruments designed to “listen” for the calls of baleen whales detected 9 endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine last month [December 2012]. The robots reported the detections to shore-based researchers within hours of hearing the whales (i.e., in real time), demonstrating a new and powerful tool for managing interactions between whales and human activities.

The team of researchers, led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists Mark Baumgartner and Dave Fratantoni, reported their sightings to NOAA, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA Fisheries Service, in turn, put in place on December 5 a “dynamic management area,” asking mariners to voluntarily slow their vessel speed to avoid striking the animals.

The project employed ocean-going robots called gliders equipped with a digital acoustic monitoring (DMON) instrument and specialized software allowing the vehicle to detect and classify calls from four species of baleen whales—sei, fin, humpback, and right whales. The gliders’ real-time communication capabilities alerted scientists to the presence of whales in the research area, in the first successful use of technology to report detections of several species of baleen whales from autonomous vehicles.

The oceanographic research project was underway from November 12 through December 5, operating in an area called the Outer Fall, about 60 miles south of Bar Harbor, Maine, and 90 miles northeast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Right whales are thought to use this area every year between November and January as a mating ground.

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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


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