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Slow: Whale Xing

• July 14, 2008 • 2:00 PM

Biologist Christopher Clark builds sonic buoys that help ships avoid running down the last of the right whales.

A few miles from America’s major eastern cities, the last surviving North Atlantic right whales ply their ancestral waters. Summer finds them in the cold waters off Cape Cod and in the Bay of Fundy, feasting on plankton and mating; in the winter, pregnant females travel as far as Florida to give birth. As they swim along the urbanized coastline, every year whales are run over by ships or entangled in fishing gear. With fewer than 350 alive today, each right whale death pushes the species closer to extinction.

For more than 30 years, Christopher Clark, the director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University, has listened to the moos, clicks and chortles of the traveling whales. “Here in the Northeast, we have this concentration of right whales, plus a highly educated population and a certain amount of disposable income,” says Clark, a Cape Cod native. “Why shouldn’t we take the lead in saving them?”

Harnessing his knowledge of ocean acoustics, Clark helped design a sort of underwater whale-traffic regulator. This spring, a 50-mile string of “auto-detection” buoys debuted in Massachusetts Bay, collecting whale sounds and allowing scientists and ship captains to collaborate in preventing whale strikes. The buoys also collect sonic data on an underwater world that, despite its proximity to tens of millions of people, remains mysterious and separate.

On a may morning, Clark bounds out of Boston’s Lenox Hotel, headed to a buoy repair shop in the coastal town of Scituate, Mass. Since January, 10 buoys have been positioned between Boston’s in- and outbound shipping lanes, each loaded with electronic devices that have to withstand a daily onslaught of tides, barnacles and other oceanic wear and tear. The buoys have actually stood up well so far; the worst damage occurred when one got stuck on a fisherman’s cable and was dragged 15 miles out to sea. But the ocean itself hasn’t inflicted much damage, and today Clark is just doing routine maintenance.

christopher clarkThe gadgetry inside the buoys supports a straightforward philosophy: Find the whales as they find each other — by listening. In the ocean, where sound travels faster than in air and visibility is often low, whales keep in touch through voice. “They move in acoustic herds,” Clark says. “They seem to tell each other when they find a good patch of krill.” Each species has its style; right whales commonly use the “up-call,” a sort of deep bubbling sound.

Each of Clark’s buoys contains a hydrophone, which relays underwater sounds to an onboard computer that separates background noise and ranks sounds for their probable match to the right whale. Every 20 minutes, the buoy calls its files over to Clark’s lab at Cornell, where analysts identify sounds coming from other sources, like humpback whales or fish. Once they verify the buoy has recorded a right whale, advisories are sent to the Right Whale Listening Network’s Web site and to the sighting advisory system run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For the next 24 hours, ships passing within five miles of the buoy are advised to slow to 10 knots and watch for whales. Only one group of ships is actually required to do this: those run by Excelerate Energy, a liquefied natural gas company. Excelerate commissioned the buoys and pays for their upkeep as part of a licensing agreement to build an offshore LNG terminal near Stellwagen Bank, a national marine sanctuary and favorite whale snacking ground. Mike Trammel, environmental compliance director for Excelerate, says that tanker crews have embraced their new lookout duties. “They get excited knowing that somewhere within 5 miles there’s a whale. They get out their binoculars — it breaks up the dullness of weeks on the water.”

Historically, interaction with humans has been disastrous for right whales. Slow-moving, blubbery and coastal, they were known as the “right” whale to kill by whalers who prized their large yields of oil and baleen. Industrial whaling wiped out the East Atlantic right whale, which ranged from Iceland to Spain. In North America, the population slowly recovered from a low of perhaps tens of individuals, only to face the new perils of an industrialized ocean full of ships that could inadvertently kill. And not all the killing was inadvertent. Early in his career, Clark witnessed depredations on a population of South Atlantic right whales off Argentina. “There were instances where the Argentine navy would use them as target practice,” he recalls. “We’d see whales with big holes in their backs.”

Clark and Moira Brown, a right whale specialist at the New England Aquarium, hatched the idea for using buoys to protect whales over beers at a Cape Cod barbeque. They were discussing research with recorders embedded on the sea floor. Brown wondered if there wasn’t a way to retrieve recordings daily as opposed to every three to six months — “a quantum leap” in knowing what was out there on a timely basis.

Intrigued, Clark collaborated with engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to develop a buoy prototype. In test runs, a problem emerged: The hydrophone was picking up noise of the buoy rising and falling with the waves. “It sounded like wind blowing into a microphone,” says engineer John Kemp. His team devised a special “Gumby hose,” with a stretchy rubber tube that protects the coiled inner sound conductor. With water noise out of the way, Clark was awed by the variety of unidentified whale and fish sounds the buoys picked up. “You don’t have to go to Mars to find weird sounds — they’re right outside our door,” he says.

The buoys also record ubiquitous “acoustic pollution” — the drone of ship engines, sonar and other human noise. Massachusetts Bay may look picturesque from above, but for whales, “it’s like living by Logan Airport,” Clark says. A few years ago he calculated that whales off Newfoundland could once hear their friends singing near Bermuda. But because of human-generated sound, that vast communication span, which whales use to find food and mates, is rapidly shrinking. Clark believes that whales isolated from their acoustic herd eat and mate less frequently now than in the past, though the exact effects of human noise on whales are still undetermined. With commercial ship traffic projected to double between 2000 and 2020, their world will only grow more cacophonous.

Under current conditions, more ships also mean more collisions. The bus-sized right whales, which can weigh up to 70 tons, are no match for tankers and container ships that commonly carry more than 90,000 tons of cargo. An encounter with the bow can shatter a jaw or, at least, leave massive bruises; propellers mangle whales’ backs and sever their tails. Females seem particularly vulnerable to ship strikes, perhaps because those with calves spend more time at the surface than males.
Right whales in undisturbed waters can live beyond 70. In the past decade, the life expectancy of a female calf in the North Atlantic has plummeted to just 15 years.

A 2005 study showed that fewer than 2 percent of ships voluntarily slowed down for right whale advisories. A year later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed a regulation requiring large ships passing through right whale zones to slow to 10 knots. Some shippers argued that the law would be costly and potentially dangerous; as of June 2008, the regulation remained stalled in White House review, reportedly because of Vice President Dick Cheney’s displeasure with it.

Still, scientists spend long hours patrolling whale grounds in airplanes, relaying sightings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which posts ship advisories. The work is haphazard and dangerous. In May, a whale patrol crashed in New Jersey, killing two passengers.

Clark doesn’t expect the auto-detection buoys to replace aerial surveys; for one thing, the buoys depend on sound, and whales aren’t always vocalizing. But for Clark, there’s no getting around the need for acoustic monitoring — and the need for ships to slow down. “The shippers say, ‘You just tell us where the whales are, and we’ll avoid them.’ Well, the whales are moving all around, and it’s impossible to know where they all are at once. If there are whales in Massachusetts Bay, you have to act as if they’re in Massachusetts Bay — they don’t lie down in chaise lounges or walk in pairs.”

The experience with Excelerate gives Clark hope that private interests — motivated by government regulation, the desire to do good or some combination — can help make the ocean safe again for right whales. He envisions an “acoustic nerve network” running down the Eastern Seaboard, with concentrations of buoys outside major ports — Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Ga., Philadelphia, New York — frequented by whales. As buoy technology improves, aerial surveys will become less frequent, and shippers will have timely information on where whales are likely to surface.

For scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding the right whale, conditions that would allow recovery are tantalizingly close to reality. The population seems poised to grow, producing about 20 calves a year. Now the fate of right whales rests on the vagaries of human will and politics. “We have the technology to significantly improve our ability to prevent killing a whale with a ship,” Clark says. “It’s a matter of whether our society will accept our stewardship of the sea, or whatever you want to call it. Basically, the question is this: Do we value these lives?”

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Lindsey McCormack
Lindsey McCormack grew up north of Boston, learning from an early age to appreciate fried clams and cold oceans. She attended Harvard College, where she majored in Latin American history and literature, and studied for a year in Bolivia. Later, she worked as a speechwriter for Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. She is an associate editor at 02138 magazine and resides in Queens, N.Y.

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