Underwater robots locate endangered whales

Jan. 9, 2013 at 8:55 PM

WOODS HOLE, Mass., Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Robots designed to "listen" for calls of baleen whales detected nine endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine last month, researchers say.

The two robots of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported the detections to shore-based researchers in real time, demonstrating a new and powerful tool for managing interactions between whales and human activities, they said.

Researchers reported the sightings to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, responsible for enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which in turn put in place a "dynamic management area," asking ships to voluntarily slow their speeds to avoid striking the animals.

The robots had been operating in an area called the Outer Fall, about 60 miles south of Bar Harbor, Maine, and 90 miles northeast of Portsmouth, N.H.

"We put two gliders out in the central Gulf of Maine to find whales for us," Woods Hole scientist Mark Baumgartner said. "They reported hearing whales within hours of hitting the water. They did their job perfectly."

The innovative whale detection system can give conservation managers a cost-effective alternative to ship- or plane-based means of identifying the presence of whales, researchers said, and gives whale ecologists new tools for understanding large animals that spend most of their lives out of human eyesight below the sea surface.

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