NOAA Expedition Hears Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales off Greenland

May 20, 2009

Right whale and calf.

This mother and calf are part of the western population of North Atlantic right whales.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

A team of scientists funded by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research recorded the distinctive calls of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area where it was believed that the historic resident population was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. Besides providing a better understanding of the whales, the discovery has implications for future shipping in the region.

Scientists from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory and Oregon State University deployed “listening” hydrophones to continuously record sounds for a year in the Cape Farewell Ground, an area off the southern tip of Greenland. Chief Scientist David Mellinger presented the team’s findings today at the semi‑annual conference of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Ore.

Hydrophone deployment.

Scientists deployed five hydrophones, including the one pictured, off the eastern side of the southern tip of Greenland.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

In July 2007, the team deployed five stationary hydrophones between 200 to 400 miles off the coast of Greenland. After collecting them in July 2008, the team sorted through the year’s worth of recorded sound on each device to find evidence of right whales. Using automated detection software to search for a particular right whale sound – an “up” call – and after months of sifting through false positives, they identified more than 2,000 real whale calls. All of the calls occurred between July and December, with evidence between July and September of a north-south migration Mellinger believes covers thousands of miles.

“The North Atlantic right whale is an icon for protecting and restoring valuable ocean resources which is a priority for NOAA,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “This discovery adds important information so that ocean resource managers may better understand and better protect this highly endangered species.”

The right whales recorded could have migrated from the western North Atlantic right whale population, which is estimated at between 300 and 400 animals. But of the two right whales sighted in the last 50 years on the Cape Farewell Ground, one had only rarely been seen with the western population, and the other had never been seen in the area. The recordings in the Cape Farewell Ground raise the possibility that the eastern North Atlantic right whale population may still exist.

Dave Mellinger.

Dr. Dave Mellinger, an acoustics expert with Oregon State University and NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, was the chief scientist on the mission.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

“We were thrilled to hear these calls on the recordings, because we considered it a bit of a long shot,” said Mellinger. “But we knew it was a historic habitat area, and an unstudied one. Now the question is how many whales are there, and what population do they belong to?” 

Knowing that the whales are in the area is important, as continued ice melt will likely lead to increased shipping in the region.

“Newly available shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage would greatly shorten the trip between Europe and East Asia, but would likely cross the migratory route of any right whales that occupy the region,” said Phillip Clapham, a right whale expert with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, who participated in the study. “It’s vital that we know about right whales in this area in order to effectively avoid ship strikes on what could be a quite fragile population.”

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.