Learning by listening to the whales of New York

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

New York City may be home to more than 8.4 million people, but here also resides quite a bit of wildlife. On a recent summer afternoon in the Big Apple, I spotted hoards of colorful songbirds and dozens of squirrels in street-side trees; several red-tailed hawks in the skies; and a pair of enormous, duckweed-encrusted snapping turtles in a Central Park pond.

Yet, had I looked off toward the sea, there’s a chance I could have seen some other pretty cool creatures: whales. At least seven species have been living off New York’s coastlines for centuries: blue, humback, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales; as well as the now critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Yet scientists know little about these whales of New York.

Humpback whale breaching. Credit: Carl Safina
Humpback whale, breaching. Credit: Carl Safina

That may change, thanks to a new collaborative whale-monitoring project brought to the region by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society. To keep an eye on whales, the two organizations are using an array of observational strategies, the newest of which makes use of an acoustic monitoring device that automatically picks up and identifies whale calls.

According Dr. Mark Baumgartner, one of two main scientists working on the project, the primary goal is to better estimate the number of whales that use New York waterways and determine how close whales are venturing to the New York Bight region of the Atlantic—an area of ocean that overlies the continental shelf between the South Shore of Long Island and the coast of New Jersey. The acoustic studies will be used in conjunction with aerial- and vessel-based surveys of whales in this region.

On June 23, research technicians involved in the project navigated a large research vessel to the New York Bight, about 22 miles south of Fire Island. There they plunked a weighted frame containing a high-tech whale-listening device called a hydrophone 125 feet down to the seafloor.

The hydrophone, roughly the same size and shape as a small fire extinguisher, sends sounds to a processing device attached to the frame. The processor determines the intensity, frequency and duration of the calls to determine the whale species and approximate location of the whale when the call was made.

Minke whale, about to surface. Credit: Carl Safina
Minke whale, breaking the surface. Credit: Carl Safina

A few thick black hoses carry the decoded whale-sound information from the processing device on the seafloor up to a large yellow buoy floating at the water’s surface. The buoy then sends the info to scientists’ computers back in the Woods Hole lab via an Iridium satellite system powered by a lithium battery.

The scientists add their data to this public webpage. The hope in studying whales and sharing their information about the number, variety and locations of whales in the New York Bight is to help guide better policy decisions about protecting whales from the biggest threat to their survival: humans.

“The benefits are that we get a better understanding of the distribution of whales and work to reduce anthropogenic interference” such as ship-strikes, fishing net entanglements, manmade noise and competition for the kinds of fish caught by both humans and whales, says Dr. Arthur Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, another organization involved in whale-research efforts in the New York Bight. “Monitoring these populations, and sharing that information allows all of us to bring in more of the public as stakeholders and as potential stewards.”

Dr. Arthur Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, on a whale watching trip. Credit: Carl Safina
Dr. Arthur Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, on a whale watching trip. Credit: Carl Safina

The key to successfully keeping track of whales into the future is maintaining a balanced monitoring strategy, says Kopelman. He points out that in many species of whales, it’s only the males that make sounds, and so acoustic technologies would not detect any female whales, skewing population numbers, “thus, the lack of sounds doesn’t mean the lack of whales.”

Whales play an essential part in the ocean ecosystem, consuming large quantities of krill and other forage fish species. Protecting whales helps keep sea life in proper balance. You can help scientists learn more about how to best help the whales of New York by keeping your eyes peeled next time you’re on or by the sea: report whale sightings to the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island and other whale-research organizations.

For a really fun experience, take a whale-watching trip, which will boost your chances of seeing some of these fantastic finned wonders.

Humpback whales, feeding. Credit: Carl Safina
Humpback whales, feeding. Credit: Carl Safina

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.