Right whale sonobuoy surveys

Quick summary

Aerial surveys are one of the most important sources of information on the distribution of protected species in the NW Atlantic. They are particular helpful for right whale surveys, as the photographs taken during aerial surveys contribute to the right whale photo ID catalogue, an incredible resource that allows the research community to track and understand this population better than that of just about any other baleen whale species.

The protected species branch of the NE fisheries science center flies many right whale surveys throughout the Gulf of Maine and Atlantic Canada. Usually their surveys seek to find an aggregation of right whales, then circle the group until they have photographed every individual. In 2017 they added an acoustic component to their survey efforts, and began deploying sonobuoys prior to circling an aggregation. Sonobuoys are disposable hydrophones that can be dropped from planes. They transmit audio data via radio, which allows the survey team in the plane to wirelessly record sounds in the water as they circle and photograph the group of whales.

The goal of this project is to compare what the survey team sees with what the sonobuoys record to see if there’s any relationship between the demographic composition or behavioral state of the group and the sounds that they make. Our hope is that we can use this information to better understand how to compare results from visual and acoustic surveys, and also make some inferences about the behavioral context of different types of calls.