Woods Hole researchers are eavesdropping on whales in the Atlantic

A look at the buoy researchers are using.
A look at the buoy researchers are using.Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Using a high-tech buoy connected to tubes that reach 125-feet down to the ocean floor, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution can now listen in on the soothing songs and underwater chatter of several whale species.

The institution announced this week that it’s working with the New York Aquarium to record and analyze, almost in real-time, the hypnotic noises emitted by whales traveling in New York Bight, a shipping corridor that runs from Montauk to Cape May.

Essentially, experts said, they’re using the sophisticated technology to eavesdrop on the large ocean creatures.

“From a scientific standpoint, this technology will give us a handle on what species are there, and what motivates the movements of those animals,” said Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist with WHOI, and co-leader of the project launched in partnership with the aquarium.


At least seven whale species have been documented in New York Bight, including humpbacks, minkes, and endangered North Atlantic right whales. But noise from cargo ships and vessels can severely limit the ability of the animals to communicate using their distinct vocalizations.

“We want to characterize the risks that are posed by the things that we do in the ocean near these animals — primarily industrial activity,” said Baumgartner.

The buoy, which is four-feet in diameter and has a mast that juts 6 feet above water, was deployed last week.

Attached to the buoy are “stretch hoses,” Baumgartner said, which are weighted by an aluminum frame that sits at the bottom of the ocean.

The frame carries the acoustic instrument that processes and records the sounds captured by a hydrophone — a type of underwater microphone.

Baumgartner said underwater sounds will be transmitted through the long hoses to the buoy, where they will be beamed via satellite to Woods Hole.

“Every two hours, through the satellite, we will get an update,” said Baumgartner.


But the information won’t be audible — at least not at first. Baumgartner explained that the sounds will be processed and come in as visual data that can be analyzed.

“The software boils the sound down. Imagine you’re playing the piano, and you had a magic box next to you that listens to the sound and then spits out sheet music,” he said. “You could then bring that sheet to an expert, and they could tell you what song is being played.”

Baumgartner said researchers “can tell what species are there based on the types of sounds they make and the pattern of sounds.”

The data will be shared online with the public.

Next year, when researchers pull the buoy from the water, they’ll be able to actually listen to the sounds recorded by the hydrophone.

A similar buoy was deployed in Massachusetts, near Martha’s Vineyard, in 2015. Information from that study can be found on the organization’s website.

“The place we have put this buoy is new,” Baumgartner said. “This type of monitoring has not been done here before, ever.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.