Each day, they appear as colorful blips on a black graph. The dispatches from a new buoy 23 miles off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, could be nothing more than noise from passing ships or rough waves. But they could be whales.
It’s up to researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to tell the difference.
In groups of three, the small sound waves might be sei whales. A symphonic pattern of notes could be humpbacks — the “songbirds of the sea,” said Amber Fandel, a faculty research assistant with the center’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
The buoy’s algorithm, developed by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, often thinks it’s discovered passing baleens. But the discerning eye of a researcher knows best. The hydrophone aboard the bright yellow and blue buoy, with brethren up and down the East Coast, hasn’t tracked a whale since it was plopped in the water in late May, though some are expected as the fall draws closer, Fandel said.
Several different whale species traverse the waters off Maryland’s shores, including humpbacks and sei whales, but also fin whales and endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which there are fewer than 400 left in the wild. Many of the whales travel south in the fall or winter, and then return to feeding grounds off the coast of New England when the weather warms.
”We also have detected them over the years during the summer months as well, so it’s not that they’re only there during a certain time of year,” said Catherine McCall, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Office of Coastal and Ocean Management.
Lately, the scientists’ work has taken on fresh urgency. The buoy is located in the 80,000-acre lease area carved out for the MarWin wind farm. Construction on the win farm is likely to start sometime in 2024, officials said, and could present dangers to marine mammals.
The project still requires a permit from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that could take until late 2023, said Jeff Grybowski, CEO of US Wind.
Loud activities like pile-driving can disrupt the whales, with calamitous consequences, Fandel said.
“We try to avoid exposing them to that sound in general because it can cause physiological and behavioral trauma to the animals, so it can damage their hearing, or it can cause them to change their behavior in a way that could be detrimental,” Fandel said.
Ships arriving for construction could also strike any slow-moving whales nearby, causing life-threatening injuries. When ships are in the water for construction at the MarWin farm, certified monitors will be aboard to scan for whales, Grybowski said. If one is spotted in an area researchers have determined will be affected by the sound of construction, activities will stop, Grybowski said. Ships will also be required to slow to 10 knots.
But with data from the new buoy, funded for a year by a $650,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration’s Offshore Wind Development Fund. the company is hoping to avoid work stoppages by planning construction for times when whales aren’t likely to appear, Grybowski said.
“A buoy like this gives us very site-specific information, which does not exist today,” Grybowski said.
The buoy is unlike any other to be placed off Maryland’s coast, McCall said. The floating data collector, outfitted with a satellite receiver and audio equipment that helps to differentiate white noise and whale calls, is capable of sending data back to shore daily, unlike its predecessors placed in Maryland’s corner of the Atlantic.
“We still had the same coverage, we just had to wait several months until we got those recovered and downloaded the data sets,” McCall said.
About every two hours, the buoy sends data back to Fandel and the other researchers. The unverified data quickly becomes available online. Once a day, they check its accuracy. The moment they find a true whale, rather than false alarms, they’ll alert an email list of followers, and a tracking app called Whale Alert.
The data from buoys like the one in Maryland could also help inform the placement of new speed management areas for ships. There are 10 areas along the East Coast, where ships over 65 feet long are required to slow to 10 knots.
Over the past four years, the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay was the fourth-worst zone on the East Coast when it came to compliance, with 56.4% of ships speeding, according to a recent study from Oceana, an advocacy organization focused on ocean conservation.
The zones, important feeding, breeding and calving areas for the whales, were chosen in 2008. Oceana is calling for more zones, and for smaller ships to be held to the same rules as larger ones, mainly in an effort to protect the North Atlantic right whales.
Kristin Rayfield, a naturalist with Rudee Tours based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said she and her colleagues often spot whales outside the speed reduction zone.
“While the seasonal management zones and areas are definitely helpful, we are seeing a lot of sightings outside of that particular location,” she said. “Definitely, we would like to see more measures put in place to help protect the whales.”