A few months ago, while I was still on co-op at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), I helped put together a video about Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at WHOI who studies whale distribution and behavior. The video went out with a WHOI press release when Baumgartner’s team, in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, deployed a buoy in the New York Bight, about 20 miles off the coast of New York City. The buoy’s job is to detect the proximity of whales through an acoustic monitoring device known as the DMON, the information from which is then transmitted to the researchers back onshore.
Since June, when the buoy was deployed, Baumgartner, WCS, and their collaborative research have been making news as the buoy has detected sounds from different types of whales, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, passing through the harbor. The buoy’s placement in the New York Bight was strategic, since it’s a busy area where many ships pass through each day – ships that could easily hurt the whales if the crew aren’t aware of their presence.
According to this article from phys.org, the “right” whale was named as such because the first commercial whalers decided that it was the best species to hunt. Though whaling is a thing of the past, the species remains in decline due to conflict with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.
The buoy, which is connected to the listening device on the seafloor through a stretch hose, allows researchers to detect the presence of whales in real-time. The analysts listening onshore can “read” the different whale sounds “just like a musician would read sheet music,” as Baumgartner said in a video interview with PBS NewsHour. The detection data is then posted on a public website.
According to the website, the goal of the project is that, “The buoy will help to improve monitoring and conservation efforts for whales by providing scientists, managers, and the public with near real-time information on whale presence.” Having this type of real-time data allows ships in surrounding areas to know in advance to steer clear of the whales nearby. It also creates a greater sense of community engagement for those living in New York, especially since the whales are essentially visiting them in their own backyard.
As Baumgartner said in the video interview I did with him in April with help from WHOI Media Relations and Visual Resource Coordinator Erika Fitzpatrick:
It’s very important for people to know what’s going on in the ocean, because they don’t experience the ocean that much. If people are going to feel a sense of ownership with the ocean and what happens in it, they have to know what’s going on out there.
Though the DMON is essentially picking up conversations between the whales themselves, it also facilitates a dialogue between the whales, the researchers that study them, and the citizens for whom the ocean makes up part of their permanent landscape. That conversation is likely to increase further as the buoy continues to eavesdrop on the whales that reside beneath the surface of the ocean.