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The Whale Detector

The last few centuries have not been kind to the Northern Right Whale. Its name offers one clue to the trouble. Whalers came up with that name because they considered the creature to be the right that is, correct whale to hunt. A slow swimmer that can be approached and killed easily, the Northern Right Whale also floats when it's dead, a fact that makes hunting it even more attractive.

And so the Northern Right Whale was nearly hunted into extinction. Its numbers fell until only a few hundred specimens remained in the North Atlantic. Protection finally arrived in 1935, when hunting the whales became illegal. Sixty-five years later, though, the Northern Right Whale still faces extinction.

The problem now is more difficult to pinpoint. In all likelihood it involves a combination of factors, such as water pollution and starvation. Another factor is shipping. To be specific, Northern Right Whales have a tendency to collide into ships. And despite their size a mature Northern Right Whale can measure 50 feet in length and weigh 40 tons the whales often die as a result of these collisions.

Adding to the problem is the fact that Northern Right Whales like to feed and breed in some of the same waters favored by shipping companies. Of course, the ships can shift course to avoid the whales, but the whales are on the move, too, which complicates matters. What is needed, then, is an accurate and up-to-the-minute way of locating whales in shipping lanes. And soon there may be just such a system on the Atlantic Coast.

It involves the use of specially equipped buoys to record underwater sounds. According to a report published recently in the New York Times, six of these buoys were temporarily positioned off Cape Cod last spring in an area known as the Great South Channel. The signals from the buoys were transmitted to a computer, and the computer scanned them for characteristic Northern Right Whale sounds.

The buoys were removed after a month, but the hope is that a permanent network of these buoys will someday be set up. If so, the buoys will transmit their signals to computers, which will then alert ships in the area to alter their courses. The Northern Right Whales, meanwhile, will remain oblivious and safe.