Next month, a Texas-based company plans to begin construction on an off-shore liquefied natural gas terminal in Massachusetts Bay. Excelerate Energy got the go-ahead late last year after agreeing to fund an almost 17-million dollar system to protect the whales that inhabit these waters.
Using specially designed acoustic buoys, scientists will monitor and record the sounds of the whales. It's a joint effort from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Cornell Ornithology Lab.
WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti joined the Cornell crew on the day they deployed the buoys in Massachusetts Bay.
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[Sound of water lapping against boat]
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Salem Harbor just before dawn. There's a cold, salty tang in the air. The sky is obsidian black. White sea birds sleep on the water, beaks tucked under their wings. They wake up and fly away when something breaks through the still morning.
[Sound of boat engine revving up]
CHAKRABARTI: Skipper Erik Fel'Dotto gooses the engine of the 42-foot research vessel "Nasty Habits", and heads out into Massachusetts Bay, the crescent of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Cape Ann to Cape Cod bay.
The ship's manifest includes three scientists, and on deck, what looks like 12 large bright yellow spheres.
CHRIS TREMBLAY: "We call them pop-up buoys, affectionately."
CHAKRABARTI: That's Chris Tremblay, project coordinator at the bioacoustics research Center at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He's 28. With a round face and sea captain's beard. The buoys he's deploying are big as beach balls. Inside, they house underwater microphones, and hard drives. All they do is sit on the seafloor and listen. They're called pop-ups, because after a month, underwater and out of contact with the scientists, the buoys let go of their anchors and pop-back up to the surface for retrieval.
Tremblay's team is deploying 19 buoys in all. 12 of them today. They'll form a 25-square-mile array across the bay... call it an underwater acoustic dragnet...meant to catch the sound of whales.
TREMBLAY: "Yeah, particularly in Massachusetts Bay, we're going to see a lot of finback whales, a lot of humpback whales, occasional right whales."
CHAKRABARTI: All sending out different calls. All heard by the buoys.
TREMBLAY: "Humpbacks are special whales in that acoustically they're across the board, up and down the frequency range. A lot of the other whales are pretty low frequency, so you'll just hear more of a MOOP!"
CHAKRABARTI: Tremblay grimaces. Ok, he doesn't speak whale very well. So we hunker down around his laptop to listen to whale calls recently recorded in Cape Cod Bay.
[Underwater recording of right whale calls]
CHAKRABARTI: It's the low, mournful call of Eubalaena glacialis. The North Atlantic Right whale. With fewer than 400 left, they're among the most endangered animals in the world.
The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act made it illegal to harm these animals. Including harassing them with loud sounds. That's what worries environmental officials about the construction of the offshore LNG terminal... that it could create a harmful acoustic disturbance in the water... the whale's equivalent of a jackhammer shattering the peace in a city park. Tremblay hopes data from the buoys will prevent it from getting to that point.
TREMBLAY: "If an animal calls in this array, we can triangulate its position using its call, and we can see where that overlapped with this zone of high volume noise that comes from the construction activities. So, where that overlaps is where the harassment takes place and that's what we're trying mitigate."
[Sound of boat engine fades out]
CHAKRABARTI (on location): "6.10 AM and we're about three miles away from the first drop site of the first buoy."
TREMBLAY (speaking to team): "Ok, so a tagline through the eye of the bowlines on the sandbags. And then back up through that..."
[Sound of crew working on deck of boat]
CHAKRABARTI: Tremblay gets down on his knees and sets up a small speaker... for a final test communication to see if the buoy is alive, and listening.
[Sound of electronic beeping from speaker. Return beeping from bouy]
TREMBLAY: "The first sound was out of the speaker, basically saying hello to it."
JIM WALLUK: "Did you catch the second one?"
CHAKRABARTI: "Yeah, a little higher pitched? Uh-huh. So the higher pitched one was the buoy responding."
TREMBLAY: "That's right, yeah."
CHAKRABARTI: They hook up the buoy to a long boom, and dangle it over the water.
TREMBLAY: "Ok guys, whenever you're ready you can let it go."
CREW MEMBER: "Lower it right down into the water."
[Sound of buoy splashing into ocean]
TREMBLAY: "We've got 42-decimal-25015 North. And 70-decimal-60493 West."
[Sound of boat engine revving up and crew heading to next site.]
CHAKRABARTI: The team will deploy 11 more buoys like this today. Each time noting with a hand-held GPS unit, exactly where — so a month from now they'll know where to retrieve them — and when — so, back at the lab, they can synchronize what the buoys have recorded, creating a spectrogram of sound. Like a piece of sheet music. 12 buoys. 12 instruments.
TREMBLAY: "This particular system is quite effective. Usually when we send one out we get it back. The data you get back is priceless. So, it's really good."
CHAKRABARTI: And the local ecology is reflected as much by what's growing on the outside of the buoys as what's recorded on the inside, says Cornell project technician Jim Walluk.
JIM WALLUK: "Some areas that they bring them in from have a lot more growth on them. There are barnacles on them, there are crabs living inside, a lot of seaweed, a lot of different mosses and things grow on them. When you bring them in from Maine where the water's cold, you don't have nearly as much growth as when you bring them in from Georgia and shallower, warm water. They're a mess and take forever to clean."
[Sound of boat fades out]
CHAKRABARTI (on location): "Well, we're about 13 miles off the coast of Gloucester deep into Massachusetts Bay, in some choppy water. 4-foot swells catch us every now and then. But they're about to put in the 6th acoustic buoy of 12 that they're putting into the water today. And this one happens to be going in at the exact location where the offshore LNG terminal is going to be constructed. And it already happens to be a place of pretty heavy ship traffic. Because not too far from us and just on the horizon there are a couple of massive cargo container ships just transiting slowly through Massachusetts Bay and on their way to Boston."
[Sound of scientists doing test communication, electronic beeping to buoy]
CREW MEMBER: "Ok, bring it down, a bit further. Alright. Good."
CHAKRABARTI: Officials from Texas-based Excelerate Energy, the company building the LNG terminal, say they expect a tanker a week to hook up here. Some marine biologists say the ships aren't likely to have a longterm impact on the underwater acoustics of an already noisy Massachusetts Bay. Still, Excelerate had to commit to paying for at least five years of the whale monitoring system before Federal officials gave the terminal the final go-ahead.
So Chris Tremblay and the Cornell team zig-zag across the bay, long into the afternoon, deploying buoy after buoy, until 13 hours later, they drop the last one in.
ERIK FEL'DOTTO: "I don't know, did you count 12? I'm going to call it 12." (laughs)
TREMBLAY: "I counted 12. I wasn't really out back, so I don't know."
FEL'DOTTO: "I counted 12."
TREMBLAY: "I'm going to call it 12!" (laughs)
[Sound of boat engine revving up]
CHAKRABARTI: Skipper Erik Fel'Dotto turns the Nasty Habits's bow and heads for home. He punches her engines and powers through the swells. Water rushes up over the old gunwales. Paper towels are stuffed into the gap where a window won't close. Below decks, a pile of mildewed red life jackets slides back and forth in the hold.
It's said that we know less about what's in the Earth's oceans that about the surface of the moon. But it's late, and the crew's tired. So, these scientists don't wax poetic, because for now, all they can do is wait. While underwater, the buoys listen.
For WBUR, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
This program aired on April 30, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.