Autonomous investigations of baleen whales

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WHOI Slocum electric glider on dock.

WHOI Slocum glider in water.

Dave Fratantoni (WHOI Physical Oceanography) bangs on a pipe near the recorder-equipped gliders to introduce an impulsive sound that helps synchronize the recorders' internal clocks as engineer Paul Fucile (WHOI PO) looks on.

Principal Investigators:  Mark Baumgartner (WHOI Biology) and Dave Fratantoni (WHOI Physical Oceanography)

Engineering and Field Support:  Mark Johnson (WHOI AOP&E), Paul Fucile (WHOI PO), Lee Freitag (WHOI AOP&E), Jim Partan (WHOI AOP&E), Robin Singer (WHOI AOP&E), and John Lund (WHOI PO)

Marine mammals play an important role as top predators in the marine ecosystem.  To better understand this role, it is critical to characterize their distribution and habitat, and in particular, to understand how oceanographic variability affects marine mammal distribution.  Traditional ship or aerial marine mammal surveys are laborious, inefficient, and expensive owing to their reliance on visual detection by humans in good sighting conditions (daylight, low sea-states, good visibility).  Passive acoustic monitoring of marine mammal vocalizations is unaffected by weather conditions, but most applications to date involve moored recorders that can only assess occurrence of marine mammals in a single location.  Our long-term goal is to investigate the distribution and habitat of marine mammals over time scales of weeks to months using an unmanned survey vehicle capable of collecting both acoustic recordings and high-resolution oceanographic measurements.  In the short-term, we are focusing on developing and demonstrating this capability and applying it to baleen whale ecology because (1) baleen whales feed low on the oceanic food web, and therefore elucidating their ecology will provide insights into the role of marine mammals in marine ecosystems, (2) most baleen whales are endangered and are therefore of particular concern when evaluating and mitigating impacts from humans, and (3) the technology to record the low-frequency vocalizations of baleen whales can be readily implemented with available technology.

Ocean gliders are autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that move both horizontally and vertically, work continuously in all weather conditions for long periods of time (> 1 month), possess a suite of high-resolution oceanographic sensors, and operate silently (thus accommodating passive acoustics).  They are a promising, cost-effective, and efficient alternative to long-term ship-based studies.  We successfully demonstrated the feasibility of equipping gliders with custom-built passive acoustic recorders to study baleen whale distribution, vocalization behavior, and habitat during a 5-day pilot project conducted during the spring of 2005.  We are finding that the capabilities of this new observing platform allow ecological research that has not been previously possible.  We plan to build on our pilot work by (1) extending the recording duration of our custom-built acoustic recorders from 6 days to over one month (to match the endurance of the gliders), and (2) developing the capability to detect whale vocalizations on board the glider and to report these detections to researchers on land via the glider’s intrinsic two-way communication system.  Future work will focus on extending the capabilities of the glider’s acoustic system to record and detect higher frequency vocalizations so that we can use the gliders to study the distribution and habitat of odontocetes (e.g., dolphins, sperm whales, beaked whales).

Support for this project provided by the Office of Naval Research, the WHOI Ocean Life Institute Right Whale Initiative, and the NOAA Fisheries Advanced Sampling Technology Working Group.

Baumgartner, M.F. and S.E. Mussoline.  2011.  A generalized baleen whale call detection and classification system.  Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 129:2889-2902.

Baumgartner, M.F. and D.M. Fratantoni.  2008.  Diel periodicity in both sei whale vocalization rates and the vertical migration of their copepod prey observed from ocean gliders.  Limnology and Oceanography 53: 2197-2209.

Fucile, P.D., R.C. Singer, M.F. Baumgartner, and K. Ball.  2006.  A self contained recorder for acoustic observations from AUV's.  MTS/IEEE Oceans '06, Boston, MA, September 18-21, 2006.

Baumgartner, M.F. and D.M. Fratantoni.  2010.  Monitoring right whale distribution and habitat in the Outer Fall region west of Jordan Basin during late autumn with autonomous vehicles.  North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium Meeting.  New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA.  November 3-4, 2010.

Baumgartner, M.F., D.M. Fratantoni, and C.W. Clark.  2006.  Investigating baleen whale ecology with simultaneous oceanographic and acoustic observations from autonomous underwater vehicles.  Eos Transactions, American Geophysical Union 87(36), Ocean Sciences Meeting Supplement.  Abstract OS24E-05.  Honolulu, Hawaii.  February 20-24, 2006.

Baumgartner, M.F., D.M. Fratantoni, and C.W. Clark.  2005.  Advancing marine mammal ecology research with simultaneous oceanographic and acoustic observations from autonomous underwater vehicles.  16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals.  The Society for Marine Mammalogy.  San Diego, California.  December 12-16, 2005.

Fratantoni, D.M. and M.F. Baumgartner.  2005.  AUV-based physical, biological, and acoustic observations in support of marine mammal ecology studies.  International Ocean Research Conference.  The Oceanography Society.  Paris, France.  June 6-10, 2005.


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Last updated May 17, 2011
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