NOAA Expedition's Sensors "Hear" Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales off Greenland

A Right Whale and calf

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A team of scientists funded by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research has recorded the distinctive calls of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area where it was believed that the historic resident population was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. Besides providing a better understanding of the whales, the discovery has implications for future shipping in the region.

Scientists from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory and Oregon State University deployed “listening” hydrophones to continuously record sounds for a year in the Cape Farewell Ground, an area off the southern tip of Greenland. Chief Scientist David Mellinger presented the team’s findings today at the semi‑annual conference of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Ore.

In July 2007, the team deployed five stationary hydrophones between 200 to 400 miles off the coast of Greenland. After collecting them in July 2008, the team sorted through the year’s worth of recorded sound on each device to find evidence of right whales. Using automated detection software to search for a particular right whale sound – an “up” call – and after months of sifting through false positives, they identified more than 2,000 real whale calls. All of the calls occurred between July and December, with evidence between July and September of a north-south migration Mellinger believes covers thousands of miles.

 “The North Atlantic right whale is an icon for protecting and restoring valuable ocean resources which is a priority for NOAA,” said Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “This discovery adds important information so that ocean resource managers may better understand and better protect this highly endangered species.”

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