This innovative buoy could help save some of the rarest whales in the world

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A North Atlantic right whale with its tail flukes above the water’s surface. Photo by Georgia Department of Natural Resources

A North Atlantic right whale with its tail flukes above the water’s surface. Photo by Georgia Department of Natural Resources

A yellow buoy bobbing near the third busiest U.S. port may offer a new way to reduce the number of whales killed by ship strikes.

The buoy — dubbed Melville — contributes to a two-part system that attempts to measure whale locations in real-time. Built by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Wildlife Conservation Society, the buoy floats outside the Port of New York and New Jersey and transmits any tell-tale calls of endangered whales that are recorded by a second device placed at the bottom of the ocean.

Whale detections are posted to a public website, where the scientists hope captains of fishing vessels and cargo ships might use the information to adjust their speeds.

“In the New York areas, it’s difficult for ships to change course because they are routed into shipping lanes for safety purposes,” Woods Holes marine ecologist Mark Baumgartner said. “But if they are going slower, the whales either have a chance to get away or the ship strike is not going to kill them.”

Of particular concern is the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), which can be heard from five miles away. Less than 500 of these slow-swimming mammals remain in the wild, but the Melville buoy has detected the species twice since being deployed in June.

Baumgartner said the rare detections of the North Atlantic right whale and other endangered species present an opportunity to prevent ship strikes during and outside of the whales’ migration season, when the creatures’ presence is less predictable.

“What we’re really trying to do is let the (fishing and shipping) industries do the work that they do, but do it in such a way that it doesn’t cause a species to go extinct.”

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