Greenpeace Supporting Whale Science with the Arctic Sunrise

by Tim Donaghy

October 27, 2017

This week, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise hosted researchers deploying acoustic monitors used to study whales and dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean.

©Tim Aubry/Greenpeace

This week, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise hosted researchers from the Whale Acoustics Laboratory at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to deploy equipment that will aid in studying marine mammal behavior in the Atlantic Ocean. Two whale acoustics scientists were on board, using the ship as a platform to retrieve and deploy underwater recording devices, known as hydrophones, that they use to study marine mammals, like whales and dolphins, and the underwater acoustic environment.

The Arctic Sunrise was traveling from Norfolk, Virginia to Wilmington, North Carolina to highlight the impending threat of offshore oil production – which President Trump wants to bring to the Atlantic coast for the first time ever. Seismic blasting, which is the first phase of oil exploration, could be set to start up off the coasts from Virginia to Florida, as early as next winter.

Data collected by these hydrophones could help in understanding the impact of seismic blasting and ocean noise on this ecosystem. Support in facilitating this research was also provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Arctic Sunrise heads for a HARP acoustical listening device after it floated to the surface in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Listening to Whales

The Atlantic Coast is home to a great diversity of ocean life, including Humpbacks, Fin whales, and the North Atlantic Right Whale – one of the most critically endangered marine mammals on the planet. There are only around 450 right whales still in existence, and some marine biologists are concerned that allowing seismic blasting in the Atlantic could be a “tipping point” that sends the species towards extinction. 2017 has been a particularly rough year for the right whale, with a number of reported deaths, mostly due to human activity.

Acoustic monitoring allows biologists to make recordings of the underwater environment, and is a non-invasive way of studying marine mammals. Many whales and dolphins produce characteristic vocalizations and sounds that can be recorded and used to study their abundance and behavior.

Some of the hydrophones deployed off the coast of North Carolina have the ability to pinpoint the locations of whales in three dimensions and track their movements. For example, listening devices such as these can be used to study how often and how deep whales dive.

Hydrophone Deployments

Using the Arctic Sunrise, the Scripps researchers were able to recover two hydrophones that had been previously deployed on the sea floor off the coast of North Carolina.

Arctic Sunrise crew member Myriam Fallon prepares to hook a line onto a HARP acoustical listening device.

The Arctic Sunrise was able to use its crane to bring the instruments on deck.

The crew of the Arctic Sunrise retrieve the first of two HARP arrays in the Atlantic Ocean.

The researchers were able to recover the data recorded by those monitors, refurbish the instruments, replace their batteries, and return them to their listening positions.

Bruce Thayre, Bioacoustician, right, and Josh Jones, Phd. Candidate in Biological Oceanography, test some of their equipment on the deck of the Arctic Sunrise.

They were also able to deploy new instruments, increasing the monitoring capacity of the array.

The crew of the Arctic Sunrise retrieves the second of two HARP arrays in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

According to Josh Jones and Bruce Thayre, data from these instruments will be used to measure the baseline abundance of whales off Cape Hatteras and their typical behavioral patterns, as well as to measure the overall sound levels found in the ocean environment. Understanding this baseline data will make it possible to potentially understand any changes in whale abundance or behavior due to human activity — such as seismic blasting.

Protect Our Coasts, Communities, and Climate

Seismic blasting is, of course, only the first phase of oil development. The geological data acquired by these seismic companies will be sold to oil companies looking for the best offshore places to drill.

Should Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke decide to schedule a lease sale off the Atlantic Coast between 2019 and 2024, then those companies will have the option to bid on the most promising drilling locations. Exploratory drilling could start soon after that lease sale, and if a major oil discovery is made, the Atlantic Coast could begin to see drilling platforms, undersea pipelines and refineries for the first time.

A century of oil exploration has shown us that where there is oil drilling, there is oil spilling. Giant disasters like BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout may grab national headlines, but the constant presence of small to medium spills that don’t make national news, also have an impact on the region. In the past few weeks alone, the Louisiana coast has seen a 16,000 barrel crude oil spill and two separate explosions that left 3 workers dead.

Oil drilling is inherently risky, and communities along the Atlantic coast have been consistent in their opposition to this plan. Community opposition helped beat back a similar drilling plan under the Obama administration, and those voices will need to be even louder with Trump in the White House.

The science on climate change is stark: we need to reverse our dependence on fossil fuels and rapidly eliminate carbon emissions over the next decade or so, to have a chance at limiting global warming to safe levels. Opening up new areas to risky oil drilling is exactly a step in the wrong direction, but consistent with Trump’s goal of propping up a desperate fossil fuel industry while he still can. As usual, it will have to be people and communities who stand up and demand our government protect our coasts, our communities, and our climate.

Josh Jones, Phd. Candidate in Biological Oceanography works with the crew of the Arctic Sunrise to deploy a HARP acoustical listening device.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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