Do they stay or do they go? And why? These are just a few of the questions scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Society are hoping to answer about New York’s surprisingly robust whale population.

In recent years, sightings of humpback whales in New York waters have increased dramatically—in 2014, more than 100 humpbacks were spotted near the entrance to New York Harbor. And, at least six other species have also been seen in the area, including blue, North Atlantic right, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales.

No one knows exactly why so many whales are suddenly making their way to New York, nor whether they stay put or just pass through. That’s why the Wildlife Conservation Society has partnered with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to conduct the largest-ever survey of New York’s whales.

Buoy Drop

The buoy will allow researchers to listen to whales in real-time. Photo credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

At the end of June, researchers dropped a specialized buoy in waters between two major shipping lanes entering New York Harbor, 22 miles south of Fire Island’s west end. Anchored 125 feet below sea level, the buoy includes an acoustic listening device that will automatically detect and identify whale calls, and then relay the information to researchers via satellite.

The buoy will also monitor man-made noises from shipping traffic.

Whales in New York Bight. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

“This technology allows us to monitor the presence of several species of baleen whales in near real time, and to use that knowledge to better study and protect these endangered species in the extremely busy waters of the New York Bight,” said Mark Baumgartner, WHOI marine ecologist and co-lead of the joint WCS New York Aquarium-WHOI project.

Researchers will also deploy an autonomous device known as a wave glider, a small submarine powered by wave energy and sunlight that will patrol the waters of New York Bight, listening for additional whale chatter.

New Yorkers can track the whale calls on a web page devoted to the project. At publishing time, the buoy had detected only fin whales.

Making the Waters Safer

The island of Manhattan and areas of the New York / New Jersey Port. Photo credit: Maureen/Creative Commons

The buoy is strategically located between two shipping lanes, including the Port of New York and New Jersey, the busiest on the east coast. Researchers hope the information will help build a better understanding of how whales are affected by high levels of ship traffic and noise.

Fin whales have been detected in New York Bight. Photo credit: Visit Greenland/Creative Commons
Fin whales have been detected in New York Bight. Photo credit: Visit Greenland/Creative Commons

All whale species rely on their acoustic environment to socialize and navigate, and they are vulnerable to human-related impacts such as those associated underwater noise, ship strikes, and fishing gear entanglements. Recent research off the US west coast suggests that noise emanating from passing ships could disturb whale communication and ability to find prey.

“We are very concerned by ocean noise writ large,” WCS’s Dr Howard Rosenbaum, co-lead of the project, told the Guardian. “Getting hit by ships is another concern—we saw a number of animals killed by blunt force trauma in New York waters last year. We want to generate information so we can work with agencies to protect whales, so that the waters are safe for recreational and maritime boats as well as the whales.”

Scientists also hope the information will be able help them designate areas that are off-limits to certain types of fishing, and possibly even shift the location of certain shipping channels to avoid places where whales feed.