Cornell scientists listen to whales in NY Harbor

As part of our 2008 Thinking Green series, WSKG featured stories from a collaboration of northeast public radio stations.

Scientists at Cornell University announced their findings today from the first-ever acoustic survey of whale populations in the waters off New York City. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Jon Miller of Homelands Productions reports from Ithaca, New York. Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative.

MILLER: For 36 years, Christopher Clark of Cornell's Bioacoustics Research Program has been dangling microphones from boats and buoys all over the world and listening for the sounds of life. But until this spring he had never probed the high-traffic shipping lanes east of New York City.

CLARK: This is the first time anybody has ever listened to New York and Long Island, ever. And so when the recordings came back, it's like Christmas. You know, you sort of open the box and you lift it up and you go what's inside.

MILLER: What was inside were the songs of whales.

CLARK: We had right whales, the most endangered species in the North Atlantic. We had fin whales, also endangered. We had humpback whales, and now we've discovered minke whales. So we have four species of whale that are moving through and inhabiting the waters off New York.


MILLER: The recordings -- more than thirteen thousand hours -- don't sound like much. But on a computer screen

Clark can see each species' distinctive call.

CLARK: So I can read this display just like a musician would read a musical score.

MILLER: Clark says the recordings add important information about North Atlantic right whales, whose population is thought to be less than 400.

CLARK: Despite all the aerial surveys and the tagging and everything else put into it, we don't know where half the population is for half of the year.

MILLER: The findings come as federal agencies are working on a plan that would require ships on the Eastern seaboard to slow to 10 knots when right whales may be in the area. Scientists have been pushing for the speed limit; the White House has resisted it. Amy Knowlton of the New England Aquarium says she hopes the acoustical data will give regulators and ship captains a better idea of where the whales are and how to avoid them.

KNOWLTON: It's a population that's very close to the edge of extinction. It's what we call on the brink of extinction. And to try and mitigate any human interactions to this species, whether it's from ship strikes or fishing gear entanglements, could have a huge import in their ability to rebound from these very low numbers.

MILLER: This spring Clark's group placed listening devices on buoys in Massachusetts Bay to alert natural gas tankers when Right Whales are passing through. Those recordings are sent to Clark's office by satellite and posted on a website within minutes, giving captains time to slow down. Clark hopes to create a similar system in New York.

CLARK: We're actually now able to move this into a real time dimension, where we can go on the web, click on an image, and we can see whether or not there are whales in these areas.

MILLER: Christopher Clark says it's a mistake to think the presence of endangered whales within a few miles of New York Harbor is a sign that things are looking up for the animals. He says the coastal waters where they live have become as noisy as city streets. In fact there's so much noise from shipping and other human activities that right whales have raised the pitch of their calls just to be heard above the din.

CLARK: Now the problem with that is, as you go higher and higher in pitch, your voice goes less far. We have essentially taken away their ability to communicate. So the idea that everybody's coexisting, and everything is hunky dory, is baloney.

MILLER: Clark says he hopes the more chances people have to hear the whales, the more they'll want to protect them.