Monday, April 14, 2008

Listening for whales

For many who take whale watching tours in the summer, they come away from the experience exclaiming "I saw so many humpbacks!" However, if they're lucky, they may see one of the highly endangered Right Whales as well. Just outside of Boston Harbor is one of the largest marine sanctuaries designed to protect many species of whales, Right Whales among them. Stellwagen Bank was picked for specific reasons, as a home to an incredibly large diversity of animals. It is also one of the summer feeding grounds for baleen whales.

The sanctuary prohibits any kind of fishing, but unfortunately allows shipping boats free passage. One of the largest dangers to whales, and particularly Right Whales, are ship strikes. Around 1/3 of the Right Whales that have been killed in the last decade were due to ship strikes. Every year, dead whales wash up on beachs bearing the signs of ship strikes. And sadly, not all strikes will kill the whale but simply disable it, leaving it to die a slow and painful death.

Scientists have pled for action to be taken to prevent these strikes for years, and recently some steps have been taken in the right direction. For years, the whales were tracked using airplanes or boats and were then plotted onto charts to give ships the "best idea" of where the animals might be. However, these tracking trips were frequently prevented by weather or budget issues so were rarely accurate.

Stellwagen bank has recently installed a series of bouys lining the shipping lanes, as reported by The Boston Globe. These bouys listen for the signature sounds that Right Whales make underwater and send a signal to oncoming ships that the animals are in the area. This gives the ship a chance to slow down or change course to avoid killing one of the precious whales. To see the bouys in actions, check out the video from The Boston Globe here.

This comes as an answer to the controversy about changing the routes of the shipping lanes. Scientists claimed that this was the safest option for the animals, while shipping conglomerates complained of the costs it would incur. Nevertheless, lanes have been moved, both in Stellwagen Bank and in Canada, showing a victory for scientists involved with preventing the extinction of Right Whales.

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