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Whales in the City

Scientists listen for whales near New York City 

Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

Scientists are spying on whales off the coast of New York City. A giant 500-pound floating object called a buoy is recording the moans and bellows that whales make when they communicate with each other.

It’s helping scientists figure out what types of whales live near New York Harbor and where the animals are located. 

Mark Baumgartner works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He designed the buoy. It floats in the Atlantic Ocean, 22 miles off the coast of New York City.

Attached to the floating buoy is a football-sized listening device that’s anchored to the seafloor. It listens for the whales’ calls as they swim through the surrounding waters. Two other buoys are anchored off Massachusetts and Maine.

When one of these devices recognizes a whale call, it records the sound. Then it uses satellites to send information about the sound to Baumgartner’s lab. 

Scientists are spying on whales. They are doing this off the coast of New York City. A giant 500-pound floating object called a buoy is helping them. It's recording the moans and bellows that whales make when they talk to each other.

Scientists are trying to figure out what types of whales live near New York Harbor. The buoy shows them where the animals are located.

Mark Baumgartner works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He designed the buoy. It floats in the Atlantic Ocean, 22 miles off the coast of New York City.

Attached to the floating buoy is a football-sized listening device. It is anchored to the seafloor. The device listens for the whales' calls. It can hear them when they swim through the surrounding waters. Two other buoys are anchored off Massachusetts and Maine.

When one of these devices recognizes a whale call, it records the sound. Then it uses satellites to send information about the sound. It ends up in Baumgartner's lab. 

The data reveals what types of whales travel in waters off the east coast. There are more than 80 species of whales and dolphins in the world. Each one sounds different. Whales make sounds to communicate because they often can’t see each other in the dark, murky water, says Baumgartner. 

The data can also help protect whales. The massive mammals often cross paths with giant cargo ships that carry goods to and from New York. A collision with a large ship can hurt or kill a whale. 

The data reveals what types of whales travel in waters off the east coast. There are more than 80 species of whales and dolphins in the world. Each one sounds different. Whales make sounds to communicate. That's because they often can't see each other in the dark, murky water, says Baumgartner.

The data can also help protect whales. The massive mammals often cross paths with giant cargo ships. These boats carry goods to and from New York. A collision with a large ship can hurt or kill a whale.

Francesco Saviano/Wildlife Conservation Society

Workers load a buoy into the ocean in June 2016.

Baumgartner plans to add the whales’ locations to electronic maps used by ship captains. That way, captains can change the speed or direction of their ships to avoid striking the animals.

Protecting whales is especially important since some species, like the North Atlantic right whale, are endangered. That’s because hunters killed many whales in the early 1700s. Today, whales are protected from hunting. In most places, many populations are on the rise. Baumgartner wants that trend to continue.

“An endangered animal the size of a city bus is swimming in our backyard,” he says. “Wouldn’t you want to help them?”

Baumgartner plans to add the whales' locations to electronic maps. Ship captains use these maps. That way, captains can change the speed or direction of their ships to avoid striking the animals.

Protecting whales is important. Especially since some species, like the North Atlantic right whale, are endangered. Hunters killed many whales in the early 1700s. Today, whales are protected from hunting. In most places, many populations are on the rise. Baumgartner wants that trend to continue.

"An endangered animal the size of a city bus is swimming in our backyard," he says. "Wouldn't you want to help them?"

This line graph shows the number of days per month that fin whale calls were recorded by the New York buoy. Which month had the greatest number?

This line graph shows the number of days per month that fin whale calls were recorded by the New York buoy. Which month had the greatest number?

This chart shows the number of fin whale calls heard each day for one week in New York. On a separate sheet of paper, draw a line graph to display this data.

This chart shows the number of fin whale calls heard each day for one week in New York. On a separate sheet of paper, draw a line graph to display this data.

Fin whales make sounds to socialize. On which three days were the whales most social?

Fin whales make sounds to socialize. On which three days were the whales most social?

Gotham Whale is an organization that counts the whales it sees in New York Harbor. Let’s say that during a 3-hour period, 1 whale was seen at 1/2 hour, 2 whales at 1 1/2 hours, and 1 whale at 2 1/4 hours. On a separate sheet of paper, draw a line plot to display this data.

Gotham Whale is an organization that counts the whales it sees in New York Harbor. Let’s say that during a 3-hour period, 1 whale was seen at 1/2 hour, 2 whales at 1 1/2 hours, and 1 whale at 2 1/4 hours. On a separate sheet of paper, draw a line plot to display this data.

On October 5, humpback whales were heard between 12:00 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., while fin whales were heard between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Which whale species socialized for a shorter period of time?

On October 5, humpback whales were heard between 12:00 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., while fin whales were heard between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Which whale species socialized for a shorter period of time?

On October 6, both fin and humpback whales were heard in the same area at 1:30 a.m. and at 2:30 a.m. Why do you think both species might have made noises at the same time?

On October 6, both fin and humpback whales were heard in the same area at 1:30 a.m. and at 2:30 a.m. Why do you think both species might have made noises at the same time?

Baumgartner cannot count the exact number of whales near New York, because some whales could be silent while near the buoy. Instead, he listens for the sounds the whales make and counts how many times he hears them. On your separate sheet of paper, explain what this data could tell you and what it could not tell you. (For example, think about things like the whales’ location, pod size, age, health, or species.)

Baumgartner cannot count the exact number of whales near New York, because some whales could be silent while near the buoy. Instead, he listens for the sounds the whales make and counts how many times he hears them. On your separate sheet of paper, explain what this data could tell you and what it could not tell you. (For example, think about things like the whales’ location, pod size, age, health, or species.)

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