New technology is letting scientists listen in on some very big conversations happening off the shores of New York City.
A new acoustic monitoring buoy was placed in late June just 22 miles south of Fire Island. Less than two weeks later, it picked up marine conversations of fin whales, the second largest animal on Earth.
"They're just these charismatic majestic large whales," said Howard Rosenbaum is the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program. "If you can ever have the privilege of seeing one in the wild they're fantastic."
Fin whales are the only asymmetrically colored mammal: its jaw is black on one side and white on the other. Their voice is so low it's actually undetectable to human ears without speeding it up many times.
The buoy is a collaborative effort between the Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It supports an underwater listening device called a hydrophone, which picks up sound, translates it into data, and compares the data to whale calls stored in a digital library.
Here's what they sound like, courtesy of Mark Baumgartner at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. These recordings were collected off an identical buoy off the coast of Martha's Vineyard between March 2015 and March 2016:
Humpback (sped up 2x)
Sei (sped up 4x)
North Atlantic Right Whale (sped up2x)
Fin Whale (sped up 24x)
If the device detects a match, it sends an alert to analysts in New York and Woods Hole. Thanks to this nearly real-time transmission, not only can scientists know when the animals are in the water. They could in the future potentially warn shipping traffic in that area and reduce ship-strikes.
In addition, the machine records a lot of underwater sound that can help researchers understand more about the impact of ocean noise on whale communication, potentially harming their ability to feed or reproduce.
Rosenbaum says he hopes this research will help people better understand how whales use the waters off New York, and inform future policy.
"When we pull all this information together, we can begin to think about how whales fit into the New York ecosystem," he said, "and how we can better plan for our oceans."