Marine bots helped locate endangered whales off US

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 10, 2013 08:50 hrs

Washington, Jan 10 (IANS) Two bots (the word is derived from 'robots') equipped with listening devices helped detect nine endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine last month.

The bots reported the detections to shore-based researchers within hours of hearing the whales in real time, demonstrating a new and powerful tool for managing interactions between whales and human activities.

Researchers led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists Mark Baumgartner and Dave Fratantoni reported their sightings to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which enforces the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

NOAA Fisheries Service, in turn, put in place on Dec 5 a "dynamic management area," asking mariners to voluntarily slow their vessel speed to avoid striking the animals, according to a WHOI statement.

The project employed ocean-going robots called gliders equipped with a digital acoustic monitoring (DMON) instrument and specialised software allowing the vehicle to detect and classify calls from four species of baleen whales - sei, fin, humpback, and right whales.

The research project was underway from Nov 12 through Dec 5, operating in an area called the Outer Fall, about 60 miles south of Bar Harbour, Maine, and 90 miles northeast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Right whales are thought to use this area every year between November and January as a mating ground.

Two gliders were deployed by Ben Hodges and Nick Woods, also of WHOI, on Nov 12 from the University of New Hampshire's 50-ft research vessel, the Gulf Challenger.

The vehicles surveyed the area for two weeks, sending data to the researchers every two hours via satellite, prior to the scientific team's arrival Nov 28 on the University of Rhode Island's research vessel Endeavour.

The gliders continued to survey for another week before being recovered by the Endeavor Dec 4.

"We put two gliders out in the central Gulf of Maine to find whales for us," says Baumgartner, who specializes in baleen whale and zooplankton ecology. "They reported hearing whales within hours of hitting the water. They did their job perfectly."

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