Feb 19

The North Atlantic right whale, along with many other whale species, is set to benefit from work by scientists to reduce the noise levels caused along shipping routes.

North Atlantic right whale image

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the rarest large whales in the world

Reducing the din

One of the rarest of the large whales, the North Atlantic right whale is thought to have a population of just 500 individuals, and it is believed that excessive noise along shipping routes is likely to negatively affect this threatened species. The din from commercial ships makes it extremely difficult for the marine mammals to communicate with one another, which in turn means that their ability to locate food and mates, and therefore their ability to sustain a viable population, is greatly diminished.

Research indicates that noise levels in the New England region of North America have doubled each decade over the past 30 years. To counteract this problem, scientists have persuaded shipping companies to alter their routes in and around the Boston area, which plays host to several species of whale, many of which are suffering as a result of increased noise levels.

An iPad application has been developed which enables sea captains to visualise the locations of whales across the USA’s entire East Coast, and to know when to slow their ships down. Results indicate that this change in operations has already helped to significantly lower the amount of noise pollution in the area.

North Atlantic right whale image

The North Atlantic right whale is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

A thunderous drone

To a whale, it is thought that the sound of a passing container ship could be like a ‘thunderous, unchanging drone’.

It’s as if you are talking at a cocktail party and all of a sudden it is hard to hear because there is all this background noise,” said Dr Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “A couple of words get dropped, you don’t get the meaning of everything that is said to you. That is what it is like for a lot of whales in the ocean right now.”

Ship strikes

In addition to the problems caused by the disruption in whale communication, ships are also known to physically collide with whales on occasion. While such incidents are limited to just one or two a year, this presents a serious problem for a species of which only 500 or so individuals remain. Worryingly, research also indicates that mothers with calves get hit more frequently.

Our scientists found shattered bone and large hematomas which are indicative of a ship strike,” said Dr Dave Wiley of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It is hoped that the new iPad app will go some way to limiting the frequency of such accidents.


North Atlantic right whale image

North Atlantic right whale breaching

Cooperation for conservation

Using data on whale locations and the details of commercial shipping lanes, Dr Wiley and his team, along with the Boston port authorities, worked to calculate a new route which would reduce the co-occurrence of whales and ships by an impressive 81%. In addition, this new route has increased the transit time of ships by up to 22 minutes.

Since the new route was accepted by the International Maritime Organization, it has been used voluntarily by many ships, 1,500 of which pass through Boston’s port each month. It is encouraging that, despite thousands of jobs depending on commerce in Boston, many companies are instructing their captains to use the new whale app and the new suggested shipping route.

There was a little bit of resistance at first when they talked about speed reductions,” said Andy Hammond, chief executive director of the Boston Harbor Pilot Association. “Oddly enough, we found since they’ve implemented this, ships have slowed down an awful lot anyway. Initially, I think there was pushback but once they realised that it didn’t affect this port that much, they’ve accepted it.”


Read more on this story at BBC News – Whales benefit from action on ocean noise.

View photos and videos of North Atlantic right whales on ARKive.

Find out more fascinating information on the North Atlantic right whale in our Endangered Species of the Week blog.


Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author