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Are whales auditioning for their theater debut? Not quite, but they have been recorded for the first time singing near New York harbor, not far from the bright lights of Broadway.

Scientists with the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have captured the sounds of three whale species gracing the waters around New York City: the humpback, the fin and the North Atlantic right whale.


WHALES NEAR NEW YORK HARBOR

NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALE
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HUMPBACK WHALE
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FIN WHALE
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'Singing their hearts out'

The Cornell project's goals are to track the whales' migration patterns and provide information to policymakers who develop strategies and rules to protect these threatened mammals. This process could help safeguard whales from commercial shipping and other dangers close to shore. Whales were recorded within a mile of New York's bustling harbor during the study.

"They were right there in New York, singing their hearts out," Christopher Clark, the director of Cornell's Bioacoustics Research Program, told Newsday. "If you were standing on the top of the Statue of Liberty, you would be (looking out onto) the stage where these whales are performing. That's how close they are."

All three whale species -- the humpback, fin and North Atlantic right whales -- are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The right whale was hunted to the brink of extinction over the last several centuries, and scientists estimate that fewer than 400 remain.

"The more we understand about how whales use their ocean habitats, the better we are able to protect them," says Liz Alter, a marine mammal scientist at NRDC. "Ship captains and schoolchildren may now look out from New York harbor and see things a bit differently -- as a place where whales are singing just beneath the surface."

An ocean of dangers

The sea is full of threats to whales, from chemical pollutants to fishing gear to the loss of food due to climate change. But two of the most immediate dangers lurk close to shore: ships and noise.

Whales constantly have to dodge collisions with ships, especially in busy harbors such as New York. It's like playing a game of tag on a busy expressway, Clark says. Scientists estimate that ship collisions might kill as many as 30 whales along the Northeastern seaboard each year.

Right whales have a particularly hard time dodging ships. The 400-ton behemoths are very slow swimmers.

Noise pollution also threatens whales in the New York area. Sounds from shipping traffic are produced at the same frequencies used by many whales, which rely on their sensitive hearing and unique vocalizations to communicate with one another, find food and avoid predators. Underwater noise could disrupt these essential behaviors and further threaten already endangered populations.

In an effort that's separate from the Cornell project, NRDC works diligently to protect whales from the effects of military sonar, which can also be harmful or even fatal to some whale species if used without proper safeguards.

Adopting a 'smart' solution

Now that researchers have pinpointed endangered whales near New York harbor, they hope to install a real-time acoustic monitoring device that would alert ships when whales are swimming in or near their shipping lanes.

A system of "smart buoys" is already in place in Massachusetts Bay, which is also a favorite habitat of the endangered right whales. The buoys recognize the right whale sounds and send these "detections," as they're called, to a public website, as well as a marine warming system that alerts ships to slow down.

Clark hopes this system will be adopted by other areas such as New York. "Scientific studies show that even the deaths of one or two breeding females each year could lead to the population's extinction," Clark told Science Daily. "If all ships slow down for whales, it could make a real difference."

The acoustic monitoring program in the New York Bight is a collaboration between Cornell University researchers and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. The program is sponsored by the New York State Wildlife Grants Program, Oceans and Great Lakes and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Scientists placed 10 microphones around New York harbor and off Long Island from March through August of 2008. Research continues through early 2009.

last revised 10/7/2008

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