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Offshore buoy detects its first whale in waters along New York City

Earlier this year, a team of scientists from the New York Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution deployed an acoustic buoy to record the sound of whales off the coast of New York City. The buoy is listening 24/7 and conducting the largest ever survey of the whales that visit the Big Apple. Within two weeks, the listening post recorded its first visitor, and it was a big one — a fin whale.

In what’s likely a surprising revelation to many people, New York is home to a diverse population of whales, with seven different species having been sighted offshore by both scientists and whale-watching vessels. Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the New York Aquarium, wanted to learn more about this population and deployed a sophisticated acoustic listening buoy that’ll float off the shore. The bright orange buoy will bob at the surface of the ocean in a location known as the New York Bight, a wedge-shaped section of the continental shelf that extends from the eastern tip of Long Island to the Cape May area of New Jersey.

Designed by Woods Hole scientists and manufactured by EOM Offshore, the buoy is comprised of three essential parts — an orange surface portion with a satellite antenna, an anchored bottom node with a digital acoustic monitoring device, and a stretch hose that transmits sounds from the monitoring to the surface. Themonitoring device hovers a few feet above the ocean floor, capturing and recording the vocalizations of the offshore whales. It can distinguish whale sounds from background noises and identifies which whales are making that sound. These signals are sent through the stretch hoses to the buoy, where a satellite antenna is used to send the information to a land-based computer. The recorded data is then shared on a public website in nearly real time.

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After deploying the device on June 23, the team recorded its first whale vocalization a mere 12 days later on July 4. The first whale to visit the buoy was a fin whale, the world’s second-largest species of whale. Known for its streamlined shape and dorsal fin, the fin whale is commonly spotted in the Bight by whale watchers. Since its first vocalization, the fin whale has been detected several times, with the most recent visit  recorded on July 30. Only the fin whale has been identified to date, but the researchers expect to hear other whales, such as the commonly spotted humpback whale and the endangered North Atlantic right whale, in the future.

Besides its obvious scientific utility, the acoustical whale survey also is an integral part of BlueYork, a larger educational campaign to inform New Yorkers of the diverse aquatic ecosystem sitting on their doorstep. “We’re excited to share this discovery with the residents of New York City and to help promote a better awareness of these marine mammals in the region,” said New York Aquarium Vice President Jon Forrest in a statement. “The acoustic buoy will help us monitor the whales and learn more about their needs. New Yorkers can now share in that process of discovery and conservation.”