by Byron Gin
Encounters with Leviathan
The North Atlantic right whale, eubalaena glacialis,, is the rarest of the large whales in the world. Current estimates hold that no more than 350 survive. "Given this small number, our knowledge about them is pathetic," says Potter, a scientist with the Protected Species Branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. "We may find that they are already doomed to extinction. They may be too close genetically already. Too many cousins marrying cousins," he says wistfully.
During a pilot study of the right whale last year, Potter, Capt. Wayne Perryman, and two assistants photographed more than 100 right whales from a research aircraft. They tracked the animals from their summer feeding grounds off the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia to their winter waters off the coasts of Florida and Georgia--an active shipping area. "We recorded 30 recent births," says Potter, a positive sign. "But we had no idea where the other 200 North Atlantic right whales were. No idea at all."
Until recently, there was little money in the NOAA budget for whale studies. In 1998, Potter's branch formed a large-whale research program and started to identify some of the threats.
Congress then earmarked funds for Potter's three-year study of the right whale beginning in August of this year. With the aid of advanced technical equipment, he will systematically catalog the population, learn about the animals' behavior and seek ways to protect them.
Right whales frequently spend time lying on the surface and thus are vulnerable to collisions with ships. "We estimate that at least 60 percent of the human-induced mortalities in right whales are caused by ship strikes," says Potter. More than half the animals viewed in Potter's pilot study show some evidence of having been either struck (some have visible propeller scars on their backs) or entangled in nets.
In a separate study, Potter has begun working with Dr. James Miller from the University of Rhode Island to modify sonar used by the Navy to block out biological noise under the ocean surface in its search for enemy submarines. Those are the very sounds Miller and Potter were seeking. Using a phased array of sonar devices, they engineered a system that enables them to "see" (through the systematic deflection of sound waves) large objects in the water. The sonar records the whales as blips on a computer screen, and can detect an animal up to a kilometer away. Once the sonar has been thoroughly tested and tweaked, it can be easily mounted on any ship. The benefits are two-fold.
"With the sonar, we can study whales' behavior. We can see how long they stay on the surface, how deep they dive, their patterns of movement--all without harassing them. For the most part, they won't even know we're there," explains Potter. But the sonar also enables a ship to "see" a whale ahead, and alter course to prevent collision.
"We don't kid ourselves. Shipping companies aren't going to buy $40,000 sonar systems to help us save the whales," Potter says, "but they will use it to prevent hitting other floating objects." The ocean is littered with empty containers that have fallen off ships, he explains. "They float just under the surface, making them a real nuisance. When a ship hits one, it causes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. With our sonar, ships can avoid collisions of all kinds, including ones with right whales," says Potter.
The objective of Potter's three-year study is cataloging the entire North Atlantic right whale population. Unique to the right whale are callosities--horny growths on and around their heads, blowhole, rostrum, eyes and jaw. These act like fingerprints helping researchers identify each animal individually. Potter's photogrammetry study will be the first consistent census of the species.
Again using surplus military equipment, this time from the Air Force, Potter and scientists have modified a reconnaissance camera to photograph whales from the sky. They've outfitted a De Havilland Twin Otter airplane (formerly a Canadian bush plane) with bubble windows for observation. A hole in its belly holds the camera. Using a radar altimeter, the crew can calculate an animal's measurements from above to within a centimeter.
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