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Automating whale detection buoys

North Atlantic right whales in New England waters may get a stronger lease on life as the automation industry steps in.

Building on advances in ocean mooring design, underwater acoustic systems, and telecommunications, a team of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology built and installed 10 “auto-detection buoys” to listen for the calls of right whales along the main shipping lanes into Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor.

The array of instruments—conceived by biologist and engineer Christopher W. Clark of the Cornell Lab and engineer John Kemp of WHOI—allows researchers to detect the location of whales in real time and alert ship operators and coastal resource managers to their presence. With advance warning, ships can slow or re-route to prevent collisions, which is the most common cause of death for the iconic New England whale.

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Auto-detection buoys allow researchers to detect the location of North Atlantic right whales in New England in real time and alert ship operators and coastal resource managers to their presence.

Marine biologists estimate only 350 to 400 right whales remain in the North Atlantic.

“North Atlantic right whales migrate through a highly industrialized part of the coastline, and we need creative solutions to help them survive,” said Kemp, an engineer in WHOI’s Department of Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering. “The challenge was to develop a mooring that could stand up to the stresses of harsh New England waters while keeping an acoustically quiet environment for the hydrophones.”

Mandated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the whale-detection system was installed along a 55 nautical mile segment of the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme (primary shipping lanes) leading to Boston Harbor.

The Northeast Gateway is 13 nautical miles south southeast of Gloucester, Mass., and 1.8 nautical miles from the western border of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Since the route to the LNG terminal takes vessels through prime whale habitat, researchers and regulators from the sanctuary and NOAA Fisheries worked with the Port’s licensing agencies (the U.S. Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration) and Excelerate Energy to develop a plan to keep whales and LNG ships out of each other’s way in Massachusetts Bay.

Excelerate Energy partnered with the Cornell Lab and WHOI to develop the remote auto-detection system. To reduce further the operational risk of ship strikes, Excelerate Energy has trained its crewmembers to watch for marine mammals and sea turtles as their vessels travel to and from the port.

Each auto-detection buoy has an underwater microphone, or hydrophone, to carry underwater sounds to the surface via specially designed cable. The stretchy, hose-like cable has data-conducting wires woven into its walls.

More importantly, the hose can stretch to at least twice its normal length, a special mooring design created at WHOI to overcome harsh sea states and keep the buoy above water. In typical winter storm conditions in the North Atlantic, wave heights in coastal waters can swell to 10 meters (33 feet), putting dangerous strain on traditional mooring lines and creating excessive noise that would make whale detection nearly impossible.

Data from the hydrophones goes through the hose to customized computers on the surface buoy, which continuously analyze underwater sounds to detect possible right whale calls. Every 20 minutes, these acoustic detections transmit via cellular or satellite phone to a server at Clark’s lab, where whale call experts validate the sounds.

In the process, researchers can determine if right whales were within range of each buoy and then alert Excelerate Energy and, perhaps eventually, other ships using maritime telecommunications networks.

“Thanks to these efforts, for the first time, ship captains can receive continuous information on where the whales are so they can slow down and avoid tragic collisions,” said Clark, lead scientist on the project. “Scientific studies indicate that the death of just one or two breeding females a year will lead to the population’s extinction. Slowing down for whales will make a big difference.”

Source:  1 May 2008, In Tech Home, Automating whale detection buoys, Staff at In Tech Home, All contents copyright of ISA © 1995-2008 All rights reserved.

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