IFAW Work Lays Foundation for Better Understanding Whale Habitat

A recent article in Scientific American did a terrific job explaining the concept of acoustic habitat fragmentation for the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.

For more than 12 years IFAW has worked to prevent ship strikes, entanglements, and better understand these rare whales so that they can be effectively protected.  Much of the scientific foundation supporting conservation measures was laid by our research vessel, the Song of the Whale and carried out with academic partnerships and successful collaborations with government partners such as NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The Song of the Whale team has included names that are now legendary in the whale world, folks like Doug Gillespie, Jonathan Gordon, and Carole Carlson have all gone on to make remarkable contributions to whale conservation.

Logger screen grab Logger, a computer program used to track whale sightings last released more than 10 years ago still remains as the most popular open source whale sighting software program in use.

Even today IFAW and the methods developed by our research vessel are being used around the world while the Song of the Whale continues to unravel the mysteries of sound in the sea.

Song of the whale laid early foundation of acoustics in work conducted off the Massachusetts coast by deploying an array of acoustic pop-up buoys on the seafloor to record right whale calls and ship noise over several months.

These buoys are underwater recorders that sit on the ocean floor and pop to the surface when triggered from a research vessel. Long after the SOTW sailed on IFAW’s work didn’t stop but continued in collaboration with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Cornell University to better understand the impact of sound in the sea - a subject that was in it’s infancy at the time.

All this work ultimately lead to what appeared in yesterdays Scientific American - that whale habitat can be fragmented in a manner similar to terrestrial animals. You’re probably familiar with terrestrial wildlife such as an Elephants habitat being fragmented by development. Every animal requires space to for a normal healthy life and regardless of if you’re an elephant or a whale as available habitat decreases - deaths increase.

The same thing seems to be true with marine life and thanks to IFAW’s past work, looks to be true for right whales. As maritime transportation increases it creates a sort of acoustic smog in what was a much quieter sea for millennia. Scientists have suspected potential impacts are quite severe. If historically Right Whales were able to hear each other at 16 kilometers, modern underwater ambient noise levels in the United States coastal waters have reduced their ability to hear each other from 813 square kilometers to 80 square kilometers.

That’s bad and makes the chances of right whales hearing each other far less than what they were. When boy and girl right whale have a hard time communicating it reduces the likelihood of making baby right whales, and that means extinction much sooner. It also likely means painful and tragically slow deaths from increases susceptibility of disease.

Without the contributions from IFAW, whether by way of the one-of-a-kind SOTW research vessel, IFAW scientists, or modest funding support it’s unlikely this groundbreaking work would have ever happened as it has.

- JL

For more information on IFAW efforts to protect whales, please visit http://ifaw.org

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