Technology offers whales new hope

North Atlantic right whales are considered among the most endangered large species on earth, numbering somewhere around 300 animals, according to recent estimates. They have been victims of excessive hunting that lasted well into the 20th century, and the lumbering beasts continue to be hit by ships as they rest near the ocean surface. Indeed, the 60-foot, 60-ton creatures reportedly owe their unfortunate names to their slow and lazy habits, making them the "right" whales to be hunted.

Whether the species can survive with such a small gene pool is debated by biologists, but sonar technology may offer hope that North Atlantic right whales – and other large whale species – are given a better chance of being avoided by ships. A Rhode Island-based company recently developed forward-looking sonar technology that allows operators to discern objects within the water column ahead of the ship, yet minimizes the number of "channels" used, thus offering potential customers – government research groups and shipping companies interested in reducing fuel and liability costs – lower product cost and user-friendly read-outs. The same technology also allows ship operators to avoid small vessels at sea, since vessels’ air pockets, like those produced by whales, offer clear targets on forward-looking sonar.

"During the Cold War the Navy had an unlimited budget, and what developed in forward-looking sonar was the planar array, which uses multiple listening elements that focus on a particular spot. This is exceedingly costly to manufacture. Our system has a different array geometry. There’s a smaller footprint and a much lower cost," said Matthew Zimmerman, a systems engineer at Pyrcon, based in Narragansett, R.I. He is project manager for Pyrcon’s forward-looking sonar system, a product called AWARE, which will be offered "commercial, off-the-shelf," in two models, one with a 1,000-meter range and one with a 4,000-meter range. Earlier devices, which cost between $250,000 and $1 million, have been too costly for most shipping companies, however enlightened, to accept. Pyrcon, Zimmerman said, will offer its units for sale at approximately $50,000 and $150,000, respectively.

"What differentiates our system from others, besides cost, is that ours allows the operator to determine not only the range and bearing of an object in the water but also the depth. This is extremely valuable for a lot of different reasons," Zimmerman said. Aside from avoiding whales, which when hung up on the bulbous bow of a ship can double fuel consumption, the system offers ship operators a chance to reduce risk of running aground. "There’s a narrow, shallow channel area in Alaska where a specific company needs to have an under-keel clearance of 10 feet, as stipulated by the Coast Guard. But if the ship misses its tide, they are forced to wait for the next tide, a costly delay. These types of customers would make the money back pretty quickly."

Pyrcon’s device includes a hull-mounted transducer and a series of processors that relay information to the bridge, digitizing the information on the way so that the targets are classified by their resolution as potential threats. Zimmerman likened the technology to radar ("Same physics, different waves"), which offers better resolution of closer targets and those made of certain solid materials, like metal, or, as in the case of forward-looking sonar, air pockets in vessels or whales.

Pyrcon, founded by University of Rhode Island professor James Miller, used the technology to assist the Navy with whale avoidance during sea trials in the Mediterranean in September and October 2000. "They were making loud noises while undergoing their Littoral Warfare Advanced Development tests. We ensured there were no whales in the vicinity, since it is believed that loud underwater noises can damage the hearing of large marine mammals," Zimmerman said. Pyrcon is currently installing the first commercial forward-looking sonar device of this kind on a National Marine Fisheries Service vessel for whale research. Congress allocated $4.1 million for whale-avoidance research and is expected to allocate an estimated $5.1 million in 2001. "Whale research vessels now use scientists with binoculars looking for whales. This will enable them to track whales after they dive," Zimmerman said.

By Ocean Navigator