A pod of Orcas are filmed surfacing through a breathing hole in the ice of Hudson Bay, Quebec, after becoming trapped near the remote Inuit community of Inukjuak. The whales can been seen taking turns breathing through a hole in the ice about the size of a pickup truck. Inukjuak's mayor has called upon the Canadian government to send an icebreaker to rescue them. The Guardian
Please, consider signing the petition to the Canadian Government to provide the necessary assistance to save these whales.
Chief scientist Mark Baumgartner, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, secures a glider (with its wings removed) after it was recovered Dec. 4 from its three-week mission. The gliders are equipped with an underwater microphone and an iridium satellite antenna. The vehicle surfaces every few hours to get a GPS position and transmit data to shore-side computers. Photo by Nadine Lysiak, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Two robots equipped with instruments designed to "listen" for the calls of baleen whales detected nine endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine last month. The robots reported the detections to shore-based researchers within hours of hearing the whales (i.e., in real time), demonstrating a new and powerful tool for managing interactions between whales and human activities.
The team of researchers, led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists Mark Baumgartner and Dave Fratantoni, reported their sightings to NOAA, the federal agency responsible for enforcing 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.
The project employed ocean-going robots called gliders equipped with a digital acoustic monitoring (DMON) instrument and specialized software allowing the vehicle to detect and classify calls from four species of baleen whales – sei, fin, humpback, and right whales. The gliders's real-time communication capabilities alerted scientists to the presence of whales in the research area, in the first successful use of technology to report detections of several species of baleen whales from autonomous vehicles.
The oceanographic research project was underway from Nov. 12 through Dec. 5, operating in an area called the Outer Fall, about sixty miles south of Bar Harbor, Me., and 90 miles northeast of Portsmouth, NH. 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 Endeavor. The gliders continued to survey for another week before being recovered by the Endeavor on 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."
While the gliders continue to run their surveys, the team aboard Endeavor works in rough seas to deploy a video plankton recorder, an instrument that helps them assess the availability of food for baleen whales. Scientists believe right whales may travel to the central Gulf of Maine during Nov. - Jan. to mate, but very little oceanographic or zooplankton data exists for this area, because weather conditions can be very challenging in during the late fall and winter. "We wanted to get the gliders up to this area that's very rarely surveyed by ships," says Baumgartner, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in what is known about these whales and their ecosystem. Photo by Nadine Lysiak, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Using the gliders's reconnaissance data and continued real-time updates, the science team was able to locate whales in just a few hours of searching. "We found our first right whale on the first day that we were surveying in decent weather conditions because the gliders were up there doing the leg work for us, to tell us where the animals were in real time," says Baumgartner.
The innovative whale detection system provides conservation managers with a cost-effective alternative to ship- or plane-based means of identifying the presence of whales, and gives whale ecologists new tools for understanding large animals that spend most of their lives out of human eyesight below the sea surface.
Whale researchers want to learn what draws whales to this part of the ocean during the late fall and winter. However, high winds and rough seas typical of that time of year make studying the animals very difficult.
"This presents a huge knowledge gap," says Baumgartner.
The labor-intensive work of surveying for whales, overseen by NOAA, is usually done by human observers on ships or airplanes, and is limited by the conditions at sea.
"We've been doing visual based surveys for a long time – either from a plane or a boat. They have a lot of value, but they are limited, especially at certain times of the year," says Sofie Van Parijs, leader of the Passive Acoustic Research Group at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). "These gliders provide a great complement to this system. Knowing where right whales are helps you manage interactions between an endangered species and the human activities that impact those species."
The success of the project is a result of years of productive collaboration among engineers, biologists and physical oceanographers at WHOI, scientists at the NEFSC Protected Species Branch in Woods Hole, and federal funders like the Office of Naval Research and NOAA's Applied Science and Technology Working Group Program. The gliders are operated by Fratantoni, a physical oceanographer; the DMON acoustic monitoring instrument was developed by WHOI engineers Mark Johnson and Tom Hurst; and Baumgartner, who has nearly a decade of experience identifying whale calls, wrote software for the DMON to enable it to recognize unique calls of sei, fin, humpback, and right whales, and to keep a tally of when and where it heard each call. By integrating the DMON into Fratantoni's gliders, the team had the ability to search large areas of the ocean and to receive data in real time.
"No one of us could've done this project alone. But by teaming up, we created a really nice group of people with expertise that was tailor made for this problem," says Baumgartner. "Now, we can know that there's an animal in a particular part of the ocean within hours of a call being made, as opposed to months later," when the instruments have finally been retrieved and the data has been reviewed.
Gliders – approx. six-foot-long, torpedo-shaped autonomous vehicles with short wings – have been in use by oceanographers for about a decade. They move up, down, and laterally in a sawtooth pattern through the water by changing their buoyancy and using their wings to provide lift. Battery powered and exceptionally quiet in the water, the gliders are equipped with an underwater microphone on the underside of the vehicle near its wings, and an iridium satellite antenna on the tail section. The vehicle surfaces every few hours to get a GPS position and transmit data to shore-side computers.
Right whale experts from the New England Aquarium, which maintains a catalog of all known North Atlantic right whales, joined the WHOI team onboard RV Endeavor. During the expedition, they identified four individual right whales, including #3611, seen here, an unnamed male. To identify the animals, the experts examine unique features on the whales, such as scars, patterns of color, and the patches of thickened skin on their heads, called callosities. Photo by Marianna Hagbloom, New England Aquarium. Taken under NMFS permit #14233.
The DMON – a circuit board and battery about the size of an iPhone – sits inside the glider recording audio and generating spectrograms, a form of the audio that facilitates complex sound analysis. From the spectrogram, Baumgartner's software generates a "pitch track," a visual representation of a whale call, and estimates which species of whale made the call based on characteristics of the pitch track. Tallies of each species' detected calls and even a small subset of detected pitch tracks can be transmitted to shore by the vehicle. "Each pitch track takes less than 100 bytes, whereas transmitting just one of those calls as an audio clip would take about 8000 bytes of data," says Baumgartner. This makes the system efficient and economical. And, adds Baumgartner, it's also really flexible. It is easy to update the software to include a larger repertoire of whale calls into the software's "call library."
In addition to demonstrating the utility of the robots for the management and conservation of baleen whales, the project also has ongoing scientific objectives. One goal of the shipboard research team, in addition to spotting the whales, was to take measurements and collect biological samples of the tiny crustaceans or zooplankton upon which the whales feed, in an effort to characterize the oceanic conditions and to understand how those conditions impact the whale's food and ultimately attracts whales to the study area. "Untangling how that happens is a big deal," says Fratantoni.
"We wanted to figure out what right whales were feeding on in this area," says Baumgartner. "We took profiles of the temperature and the salinity of the water and sampled zooplankton throughout the water column to understand what might make this area attractive to right whales." Analysis of these data is in progress now.
Additional team members included representatives from the New England Aquarium who maintain a catalog of right whales and are experts in identifying individual right whales from patches of thickened skin on their heads, called callosities. Through their efforts, the team recognized four of the individual whales sighted during their week on the research ship -- two males born in 2006, one male born in 2004, and one female born in 2008.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment.
Marine biologists are beginning to understand the varied diving and foraging strategies of filter-feeding whales by analyzing data from multisensor tags attached to the animals with suction cups. Such tags, in combination with other techniques such as echolocation, are providing a wealth of fine detail about how the world's largest creatures find and trap their prey.
Recent studies on the behavior of baleen whales—which filter small fish or invertebrate animals from seawater—are described in the February issue of BioScience. Jeremy A. Goldbogen of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, and his colleagues point out that tags can report not only the depth but also the acceleration of the animal carrying them, which reveals information on its pitch and rolling motion. Together with special software, this can allow foraging dives to be visualized in three dimensions, along with the timing. Studying whale behavior is logistically challenging, as it may be necessary to coordinate the actions of several research vessels and large research teams. Yet despite the difficulties, patterns are becoming clear.
Right whales and bowhead whales have a very different feeding strategy from rorquals—the group that includes the biggest animal on earth, the blue whale. Right and bowhead whales filter-feed by swimming relatively slowly through prey patches, a mode called continuous ram feeding. This keeps their energy expenditure low and makes possible dives of 10 minutes or longer, but means they miss out on prey able to take evasive action. Rorquals, in contrast, make high-speed lunges at prey patches that enable them to catch elusive species. They must then pause to filter water engulfed in their large mouths, however, and they have to surface more often to breathe than continuous ram feeders. The new tools available mean researchers can study the efficiency of diving and foraging in different whales and relate it to the availability of prey of different types. Because whales are considered keystone predators that structure oceanic food webs, such insights will shed important light on ocean ecology.
Reference: Integrative Approaches to the Study of Baleen Whale Diving Behavior, Feeding Performance, and Foraging Ecology. Jeremy A. Goldbogen, Ari S. Friedlaender, John Calambokidis, Megan F. McKenna, Malene Simon, and Douglas P. Nowacek; February, 2013, issue of BioScience.
BioScience, published monthly, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). BioScience is a forum for integrating the life sciences that publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is a meta-level organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents nearly 160 member societies and organizations.
“The Sperm Whales of Greece – Life in the Trenches” documents a scientific expedition through Greece in search of the elusive and endangered Mediterranean Sperm Whale. We join Dr. Alexandros Frantzis of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, onboard the R/V Nereis on a journey into the deepest trenches of the Mediterranean.
In the Ionian Sea, we discover a socializing sperm whale family, and study their behavior as they welcome a newborn calf into the group. However, the future for this calf, and its family is uncertain. As their habitat deteriorates due to human pressures, what does the future hold for the most social of the great whales?
A film by: Chris & Genevieve Johnson
A tagged humpback whale from the Antarctic. Credit: NMFS #808-1735, Ari Friedlaender
Humpback whales might be expected to take their food seriously given their enormous size, but a new study shows that they may multi-task as they eat, singing mating or breeding songs as they forage in their Antarctic feeding grounds. The research, published December 19 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Alison Stimpert from the Naval Postgraduate School and colleagues, sheds new light on the whales' singing habits in different seasons, which are still a mystery.
Whales sing most frequently during the breeding season but are known to sing on other occasions, such as while escorting mother-calf pairs along migratory routes. Though the reasons that whales sing are still unknown, the distinction between their seasonal behaviors is clear. Breeding, migration and foraging occur in different regions and times of the year, and rarely overlap.
In the current study, the researchers tracked ten whales to study singing behavior in their foraging grounds. They found that all ten sang while foraging, but two of the whales showed intense, continuous bouts of singing similar to what the researchers expected to see in breeding grounds. They also found the whales sang for up to an hour at a time and during active diving periods.
According to the authors, their data reveal a previously unknown behavioral flexibility, where humpbacks can balance the competing needs to feed continuously to prepare for breeding with mating behaviors like song displays. They suggest that this may also signify an ability to engage in breeding activities outside of the traditional, warm water breeding ground locations. Stimpert adds, "We were surprised to find such structured song in the Antarctic feeding ground. The tag data are also exciting because this is the first time that we can see that the singers aren't sitting off by themselves like they do on the breeding grounds -- they're right in the midst of the feeding action, choosing to sing instead."
Citation: Stimpert AK, Peavey LE, Friedlaender AS, Nowacek DP (2012) Humpback Whale Song and Foraging Behavior on an Antarctic Feeding Ground. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51214. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051214
When two of the exceedingly rare spade-toothed whales washed up on a New Zealand shore, they were initially mistaken for the more common Gray's beaked whales (pictured here). Copyright: New Zealand Government
A whale that is almost unknown to science has been seen for the first time after two individuals—a mother and her male calf—were stranded and died on a New Zealand beach. A report in the November 6th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, offers the first complete description of the spade-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon traversii), a species previously known only from a few bones.
The discovery is the first evidence that this whale is still with us and serves as a reminder of just how little we still know about life in the ocean, the researchers say. The findings also highlight the importance of DNA typing and reference collections for the identification of rare species.
"This is the first time this species—a whale over five meters in length—has ever been seen as a complete specimen, and we were lucky enough to find two of them," says Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland. "Up until now, all we have known about the spade-toothed beaked whale was from three partial skulls collected from New Zealand and Chile over a 140-year period. It is remarkable that we know almost nothing about such a large mammal."
The two whales were discovered in December 2010, when they live-stranded and subsequently died on Opape Beach, New Zealand. The New Zealand Department of Conservation was called to the scene, where they photographed the animals and collected measurements and tissue samples.
The whales were initially identified not as spade-toothed beaked whales but as much more common Gray's beaked whales. Their true identity came to light only following DNA analysis, which is done routinely as part of a 20-year program to collect data on the 13 species of beaked whales found in New Zealand waters.
"When these specimens came to our lab, we extracted the DNA as we usually do for samples like these, and we were very surprised to find that they were spade-toothed beaked whales," Constantine says. "We ran the samples a few times to make sure before we told everyone."
The researchers say they really have no idea why the whales have remained so elusive.
"It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore," Constantine says. "New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us."
Reference: Thompson et al.: "The World's Rarest Whale."
For 40 years, NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System has preserved and protected some of the most spectacular and treasured resources in the world’s oceans. The system, consisting of a network of underwater parks consisting of more than 150,000 square miles of America’s oceans, includes beautiful coral reefs, lush kelp forests, whale migration routes and underwater archaeological sites.
“Over the past four decades, NOAA’s sanctuaries have protected our nation’s most vital and iconic coastal marine resources so that future generations can enjoy and learn from them,” said Daniel J. Basta, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “Through active research, management and public engagement, sanctuaries sustain healthy environments that are the foundation for thriving communities and stable economies.”
Following an oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1969, Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act in 1972, now known as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. The Act was signed into law by President Nixon and directed NOAA to lay the groundwork for the National Marine Sanctuary System, which now includes 13 sanctuaries and one marine national monument.
“The National Marine Sanctuaries Act is the strongest piece of legislation protecting ocean areas today,” Basta said.
Ranging in size from one-quarter square mile in American Samoa’s Fagatele Bay to more than 5,300 square miles in Monterey Bay, California, sanctuary waters provide secure habitats for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries also serve as natural classrooms for students and researchers, provide cherished recreational spots, and support local economies.
Within the sanctuary system’s protected waters, giant humpback whales breed and calve their young, temperate coral reefs and kelp forests thrive, and shipwrecks tell stories of our maritime history in underwater archaeological sites.
Since 1972, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked cooperatively with the public and federal, state, and local officials to promote conservation while allowing compatible commercial and recreational activities. The primary objective of a sanctuary is to protect its natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the ocean in a sustainable way.
NOAA’s Sanctuary System includes: Thunder Bay, Stellwagen Bank, Monitor, Gray’ Reef, Florida Keys, Flower Garden Banks, Fagatele Bay, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale, Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Some noteworthy accomplishments during the past 40 years include:
NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. To learn more about NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System and its most significant accomplishments over the past four decades, visit this website.
Concern is growing that human-generated noise in the ocean disrupts marine animals that rely on sound for communication and navigation. In the modern ocean, the background noise can be ten times louder than it was just 50 years ago. But new modeling based on recently published data suggests that 200 years ago – prior to the industrial whaling era -- the ocean was even louder than today due to the various sounds whales make.
California researchers Michael Stocker and Tom Reuterdahl of Ocean Conservation Research in Lagunitas, Calif., present their findings at the 164th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), held Oct. 22 – 26 in Kansas City, Missouri. Using historic population estimates, the researchers assigned "sound generation values" to the species for which they had good vocalization data. "In one example, 350,000 fin whales in the North Atlantic may have contributed 126 decibels – about as loud as a rock concert – to the ocean ambient sound level in the early 19th century," Stocker notes. This noise would have been emitted at a frequency from 18 – 22 hertz.
According to the researchers, use of whaling records to determine just how many whales were harvested from the ocean over the course of industrialized whaling is difficult because the captains were taxed on their catch and therefore had an incentive to "fudge" the numbers. Some captains kept two sets of books. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of the real reports began surfacing. In one example the Soviets initially reported taking approximately 2,710 humpback whales from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. The newer data reveal the actual number was closer to 48,000.
This more accurate data was supported by population estimates using mitochondrial DNA, which does not change through female lines of a species. Thus the current diversity in DNA can serve as a proxy for historic population numbers.
While their estimates suggest there was a whole lot of whale racket a couple centuries ago, Stocker says "we can assume that animals have adapted to biological noise over the eons, which may not be the case with anthropogenic noise. Anthropogenic noise is often broader band and differently textured than natural noise, so the impacts are likely different as well. Investigating these differences and their impact on marine life is the topic of intense research."
The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) is the premier international scientific society in acoustics devoted to the science and technology of sound. Its 7,000 members worldwide represent a broad spectrum of the study of acoustics. ASA publications include The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (the world's leading journal on acoustics), Acoustics Today magazine, ECHOES newsletter, books, and standards on acoustics. The Society also holds two major scientific meetings each year.
NOC, a Beluga whale that mimicked human speech
A new paper published by the National Marine Mammal Foundation in the scientific journal Current Biology sheds light on the ability of marine mammals to spontaneously mimic human speech. The study details the case of a white whale named NOC who began to mimic the human voice, presumably a result of vocal learning.
“The whale’s vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance,” says Dr. Sam Ridgway, President of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. “These ‘conversations’ were heard several times before the whale was eventually identified as the source. In fact, we discovered it when a diver mistook the whale for a human voice giving him underwater directions.”
As soon as the whale was identified as the source, NMMF scientists recorded his speech-like episodes both in air and underwater, studying the physiology behind his ability to mimic. It’s believed that the animals close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his ‘human’ voice, as well as in its quality. Researchers believe NOC’s sonic behavior is an example of vocal learning by a white whale. After about four years, NOC’s speech-like behavior subsided.
“When NOC matured, we no longer heard speech-like sounds, but he did remain quite vocal,” Ridgway said. “While it’s been a number of years since we first encountered this spontaneous mimicry, it’s our hope that publishing our observations now will lead to further discoveries about marine mammal learning and vocalization. How this unique ‘mind’ interacts with other animals, humans and the ocean environment is a major challenge of our time.”
Dr. Sam Ridgway, NMMF President, co-authored the paper published this week with Donald Carder, Michelle Jeffries and Mark Todd. Dr. Ridgway has 48 years of experience in marine mammal medicine and research. Colleagues often call him the “father of marine mammal medicine” because of his development of dolphin anesthesia, medical technology, and discoveries aiding marine mammal care. Dr. Ridgway has served on the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Marine Mammal Commission, on four different committees of National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences, and was elected a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America for his studies on hearing of marine mammals and as a fellow of the American College of Zoological Medicine for his work on marine mammal medicine.
Listen to Noc the Beluga whale warbling in a human voice, several octaves lower than typical whale calls.