New tech helps scientists detect right whales off Maine’s coast

Michael Dwyer | AP
Michael Dwyer | AP
In this March 28, 2018, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The most recent detection took place Jan. 25, when right whale songs were heard about 50 miles southeast of Portland.
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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.

In mid-December, scientists put a set of underwater drones in 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 10 kilometer of five-mile radius is on average where we can hear them,” said 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 said. “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 Jan. 25, when the glider heard right whale songs about 50 miles southeast of Portland.

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

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.


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