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Endangered Whales Heard Singing Near New York Harbor


“This is an exciting time for New Yorkers. Just think, just miles from the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Carnegie Hall and Times Square, the great whales are singing,” says Christopher W. Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“These are some of the largest and rarest animals on this planet trying to make a living just a few miles from New York’s shores,” he said in a statement released today. “It just goes to show us that there are many important and wonderful discoveries to be made about the living world right here, right in our backyards.”


Photo of North Atlantic right whale and calf courtesy NOAA

The excitement is about the first recording in waters surrounding New York City of ” the beckoning calls of endangered fin, humpback, and North Atlantic right whales.” The recordings were made about 13 miles from the New York Harbor entrance.

 “With data generated by acoustic monitoring, we can better understand New York’s role in the life history of these endangered whales and make more informed conservation decisions,” says James Gilmore, Chief of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Bureau of Marine Resources. “This is especially important for the survival of right whales.”

Information about the seasonal presence of whales will help New York state policymakers develop management plans to protect them, the DEC said in a press release today. “Knowing the whales’ travel paths will help ship traffic managers avoid whale collisions in New York waters. Further, the study will characterize the New York waters’ acoustic environment and examine whether underwater noises, including shipping, affect the whales.”


The recordings were made between March and June this year in order to monitor the right whales’ northward migration from their calving ground off the Florida eastern coast to their feeding grounds off Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Acoustic monitoring has begun for the whales’ southern migration in the fall, back to the calving areas. The study will continue through February 2009 and is expected to reveal which species occur in New York waters throughout the winter months. 

Photo courtesy NOAA

News of these recordings comes as the October issue of National Geographic magazine is mailing to subscribers. I read an article in this issue about right whales only two days ago.

One of the most striking features of the article is a three-page gatefold that contains pictures of every one of the 359 North Atlantic right whales old enough to be individually identified. I couldn’t help wondering if in a few years from now the magazine will publish another collection of photos of every known adult northern right whale, and whether the collection would take up only one or two pages.

The article sets out clearly how North Atlantic right whales run a gantlet of ships, nets, and lines as they migrate through “one of the most urban stretches of ocean on the planet” between calving and feeding grounds.

I was gratified to read that in the waters of my native South Africa, the southern right whale, a close relative of its northern counterpart, has rebounded from a few hundred individuals in the 19th century to at least 10,000.

right whale 3.jpg

There is hope that we can still save North Atlantic right whales, in other words.

Preventing all human-caused deaths could swell the population an estimated 25 percent within 15 years, National Geographic reports.

The recordings of whales outside New York harbor and how they might make a contribution to preventing accidents is exciting news.

Photo courtesy NOAA

The Bioacoustics Research Program, a unit within the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has launched a real-time listening network to reduce the collisions between whales and ships in Massachusetts Bay.

View a gallery of photos of right whales in the October 2008 issue of National Geographic.

National Geographic News stories:

High-Tech Sound Detectors to Warn Ships of Right Whales

Photo in the News: Endangered Whale Killed by Ship