Cornell experts identify singing blue whale

Experts from the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have for the first time positively identified the voice of a singing blue whale about 70 miles off the Long Island and New York City coast, closer than ever, Cornell and the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced.

The whale’s sound was detected Jan. 10-11 using 10 Cornell acoustic recorders deployed about 10 miles off the entrance to New York Harbor and off Fire Island. A second blue whale was heard farther offshore in the direction of Bermuda.

The system of acoustic recorders previously confirmed the presence of migrating right whales, near New York harbor.

“This was a real treat,” said Christopher Clark, director of the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program. While he suspected blue whales might be offshore, it’s amazing to think they’re so close to New York, he said.

“The largest animal on earth is just right there. You don’t have to go to Africa, you don’t have to go to Antarctica.”

Blue whales can grow to 100 feet long, though in the northern hemisphere they average 70-80 feet, according to the American Cetacean Society.

The Cornell-DEC monitoring was stopped in March due to the loss of state funding, but scientists hope to resume it with restoration of the money in a subsequent budget year.

While scientists are optimistic it’s a sign the species is recovering and extending its range, the finding doesn’t necessarily mean blue whale populations have grown, Clark said. Scientists are hearing more of them off the Grand Banks and Iceland, but the whale near New York could have been a solitary exploring male, Clark said.

The Bioacoustics Program monitors an array of automated buoys off Boston to detect right whales so that ships can be notified and change course and slow down to avoid collisions, which are a chief threat to whales. The equipment in the warning system is set to detect right whales but it could be adjusted to listen for other species, Clark said.

The blue whale confirmation can help governments develop management plans for that species. A federal law last year began requiring ships in migration areas to slow down enough to allow right whales to avoid them, and commercial fishing gear that reduces entanglement risks can be required.

“Blue whales were almost hunted to extinction by the middle of the 20th century, and the fact that now we’re finding them migrating not far off our shores is truly remarkable,” DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said in a statement.

“Although whaling no longer occurs in U.S. waters, whales still face numerous threats, including vessel strikes and marine debris, and this latest finding will enable DEC and its partners to develop science-based management plans to protect these magnificent creatures.”