Hear, hear! Underwater microphones offer extra protection to BC’s iconic whales

Pod of Northern resident Killer Whales.

Apr 9, 2024

On April 4th, 2024, Ocean Wise announced a new method to help protect whales from ship disturbances and collisions in BC’s waters. For the first time ever, automatic detections from hydrophones – underwater microphones – will be used to alert nearby commercial mariners of whale presence via the Whale Report Alert System (WRAS). These alerts will help mariners determine when to slow down, re-route, or stop to avoid whale disturbance and injury.

“In light of the ongoing issue of vessel impacts on whales in BC waters, implementing new ways to protect marine mammals is more important than ever. This exciting new method of generating alerts for the Whale Report Alert System is a first,” said Dr. Chloe Robinson, Director of the Ocean Wise Whales Initiative. “This integration solidifies the WRAS as a critical tool for reducing impact on marine mammals in waters on the Pacific Coast. By supplementing our community science-supplied sightings with hydrophone alerts that detect whale vocalizations in real time, we expect to be able to provide even more alerts to keep whales safe from ship strike and disturbance.”

Whales are social creatures and use calls, clicks, whistles, and echolocation to communicate, hunt for food, and locate each other. By listening for whale sounds, sensitive hydrophones can detect their presence and, via the Whale Report Alert System, automatically send an alert to any large commercial vessels nearby. Hydrophones dramatically improve whale detection capabilities in remote areas, especially when visibility is low (in poor weather or at night), or when cetaceans are submerged and not visible at the surface. 

Listening station.

The hydrophone array being used for this implementation is based at the Boundary Pass Underwater Listening Station. The Boundary Pass station, operated by JASCO Applied Sciences, was commissioned in 2020 by Transport Canada, in partnership with the The Port of Vancouver-led Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program. The underwater listening station is located below a major shipping lane and helps to not only monitor sound levels of vessels coming in and out of the Port of Vancouver but can also listen to detect marine mammals. The station is within the designated critical habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whales.

Ocean Wise expects the use of hydrophones to result in more alerts generated via the WRAS, resulting in increased mariner awareness of whale presence and reduced potential for vessel strikes. Members of the public are still encouraged to report whale sightings via the WhaleReport App. When combined with these traditional observer reports, there is an increased level of confidence that whales passing through an area will be detected.
The Whale Report Alert System is part of the Ocean Wise Sightings Network. To learn more visitocean.org/whales/.

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