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Scientists Use New Tech To Detect Presence Of Endangered Right Whales Off Maine's Coast

New England Aquarium 2008

New acoustic monitors off Maine's coast have detected the presence of North Atlantic right whales this winter. Scientists are trying to gather new data on the endangered animals' whereabouts.

Credit dcs.whoi.edu
acoustic detections by an underwater glider from December to now

In mid-December, scientists put a set of underwater dronesin the Atlantic Ocean. One of them is charting a zigzag course to and from Maine's coast, starting Down East and working its way southwest. It's currently heading eastward off Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

During its cruise, the glider's electronic ears have heard dozens of calls from finback and humpback whales and, on seven occasions, the call of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

"We usually figure about a ten kilometer of five-mile radius is on average where we can hear them," says Genevieve Davis, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Davis is a coordinator for the project, which also includes researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"There's right whales detected, sporadically kind of throughout January,” Davis says. “That's showing us they are in the Gulf of Maine now. They are relatively close to shore, I mean they're not that far off... It's showing real-time when we have whales present, and it's really helpful to be able to get that kind of information."

The most recent detection took place January 25, when the glider heard some right whale song about 50 miles southeast of Portland.

In coming weeks, a similar coalition of scientists, including Maine's Department of Marine Resources, will start placing fixed-position acoustic detectors in eight locations off Maine, but closer inshore. They are hoping to get better data on the high-stakes question of how much risk there is that the trap-rope Maine's lobster fleet useswill entangle the endangered whales.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.