Scientists can tell you what a humpback whale sounds like or how long a fin whale will grow. But what are their lives like in New York waters?
That remains a mystery.
A group of scientists have taken a step toward finding out, placing an acoustic monitoring buoy about 22 miles south of Fire Island.
The buoy is fitted with special technology to listen for whale calls to provide insight into whale behavior for the Wildlife Conservation Society and nonprofit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
“What we’re able to do for the first time is the detection of four different species of whale in real time,” said Howard Rosenbaum, director of the conservation group’s Ocean Giants program.
The species — Sei, humpback, fin and right whales — were chosen because sound libraries of their calls already exist, said Rosenbaum, who is based in the Bronx.
Since the buoy was deployed on June 23, it has recorded fin whale sounds on 13 days, he said. Fin whales are the second-largest whale in the world, growing up to 70 feet long.
Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole research center, who pioneered the buoy’s technology, previously used it to track whales in waters off Martha’s Vineyard.
Each buoy is outfitted with underwater microphones that pick up undersea sounds and record them as “pitch tracks” — similar to sheet music.
The tracks are transmitted to servers at Woods Hole, where they are identified by a computer and researchers, Baumgartner said. The transmissions are then uploaded to a website for the public’s viewing pleasure.
Check out the data at dcs.whoi.edu/nyb0616/nyb0616.shtml.
Educating the public is a key part of the project.
“If there were very large endangered species in Central Park, they [New Yorkers] would know,” Baumgartner said. “But not so far away in the ocean, there’s large endangered species they don’t know about.”
Knowing what species of whales are in New York waters and what they’re doing there is important, the scientists said.
There are business and policy implications to the information being gathered, they said, such as making sure shipping routes and wind farms are in the best locations to minimize damage to the whales and infrastructure.
Ships create underwater noise and scientists don’t really know whether that disrupts the daily life of these whales, which use tonal sounds to communicate, understand their environment and find food. The buoy was strategically placed between two major shipping channels for the Metropolitan area.
“It’s not just cool for cool’s sake,” Rosenbaum said. “It enables us to . . . raise awareness about these issues, because they are real and now.”