Robotic buoys designed to keep Atlantic right whales safe


A Cape Cod science center and one of the world’s largest shipping companies are collaborating on a project to use robotic buoys to protect an endangered whale from fatal collisions with ships.

A lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution developed the technology, which uses buoys and underwater gliders to record whale sounds in near real time. The robotic loggers give scientists, sailors and the public an idea of ​​the location of rare North Atlantic right whales, said Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole, whose lab also operates the buoys.

Whales number less than 340 worldwide and collisions with ships are one of the greatest threats to their existence, as they traverse some of the busiest stretches of ocean on the planet. Now, French shipping giant CMA CGM is working with Woods Hole to deploy two of the robotic buoys off Norfolk, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia.

CMA CGM is funding the deployment of the buoys, which will add to data collected by six others off the East Coast, Baumgartner said. The two new buoys could be deployed for testing soon, he said.

“We need to change our industry practices when the whales are around. That’s what this technology allows,” said Baumgartner. “Having the industry tell us what works and what doesn’t is the best way to have solutions that will actually be implemented.”

Whales were once plentiful off the east coast, but their populations were decimated generations ago by commercial whaling. These days they are vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. And their population has declined in recent years due to high mortality and poor reproduction.

The whales are aided by a complex network of protected areas and navigational restrictions. However, scientists have recently sounded the alarm that whales are straying outside protected areas in search of food as waters warm. This made them more vulnerable.

Representatives of CMA CGM, whose US headquarters are in Norfolk, said the company chose to place buoys off the city of Virginia and Savannah because these are among the busiest seaports in the United States. Ed Aldridge, president of CMA CGM America, said it was an effort to “responsibly share the ocean with marine mammals and protect endangered species.”

The company pays for the construction, maintenance and operation of the buoys for three years, said Heather Wood, director of sustainability for CMA CGM America. The company declined to disclose the cost of the project. He hopes to build a consortium of shippers who use this kind of technology to protect whales, Wood said.

“It’s an investment we’re making in the future of the seas and the future of right whales,” she said.

Acoustic recorders have tracked whale sounds for decades, but buoys that emit sounds in near real time are a relatively recent invention, Baumgartner said. The robotic buoys make data available every two hours instead of months later, he said.

The results are posted on a public website and are also used by federal authorities to help make decisions about when to announce “right whale slow zones,” which call for vessel operators to slow to 10 knots ( 11.5 mph) or less.

The data “allows us to quickly send information to mariners so that those who can can take action (by slowing down or avoiding areas) to reduce the risk of ship strikes, which is one of the biggest threats to this endangered population,” the scientists said. Diane Borggaard and Genevieve Davis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a joint statement.

Conservation groups and academics also use the data collected by the robotic buoys. They’re also used on the West Coast to help protect blue, fin and humpback whales, said Callie Steffen, project scientist at Whale Safe in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“We hope shipping companies will incorporate this,” Steffen said. “It’s a Smokey Bear fire warning, but for the presence of whales.”

Patrick Whittle, The Associated Press