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Going for a song: researchers launch whale research project

Bermuda Whale Song Project (Photograph supplied)

Bermuda is to become a field station for a new study on the songs of humpback whales, it was announced yesterday.

The study, “Sound of Science”, will explore differences in song trends and phrases between North Atlantic whales and their South Pacific counterparts.

J-P Rouja, the team leader for Nonsuch Expeditions, said the conservation group had teamed with the Centre for Cetacean Research and Conservation based in the Cook Islands and the US, and Cornell University, in New York State.

Mr Rouja told The Royal Gazette: “The story of whale song starts in Bermuda, which is the first time whale song was recognised for what it was.

“Whale songs change from year to year. Locally it has been recorded sporadically over the past 30 or 40 years but not as a proper ongoing study.

“We’re basically starting a new series of recordings.”

The Government has approved a research permit for on-island and overseas scientists to study the whales, and compare their songs with past recordings.

The Department of Environmental and Natural Resources will allow the team to monitor, study and record whales to the end of next year.

But Mr Rouja said that the project would be “ideally, a multiyear effort”.

He added that pioneering work in the field was carried out in the 1950s by Frank Watlington, a Bermudian working with the US Navy.

Mr Watlington caught the songs as part of a massive decades-long scheme to track the movements of Soviet submarines.

A Bermudian recording called Solo Whale got worldwide exposure in 1979 after it was turned into a vinyl record insert in National Geographic magazine.

Similar listening technology, hydrophones, will be deployed for the “Sound of Silence” whale song project.

Mr Rouja said: “The key is being far enough away from other vessels, being away from other noises.”

Modern researchers can also use artificial intelligence to analyse whale songs and explore their patterns.

Mr Rouja said “the planets aligned” during a 2018 visit to the island by Nan Hauser, the president and director of the Centre for Cetacean Research and Conservation, when he pitched the idea of a collaboration.

But the scheme was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic – although the first recordings of humpback whales transiting past Bermuda went ahead last week.

The team, including Ms Hauser, headed ten miles offshore last Thursday to about 600 fathoms and caught a recording of a humpback male about 50m away from their boat.

A recording of the encounter can be seen here.

Mr Rouja said the information collected through the whale song project would help develop the science for recording the animals and contribute to the protection of whales in Bermuda waters as well as in the Sargasso Sea.

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Published March 29, 2022 at 7:46 am (Updated March 29, 2022 at 7:46 am)

Going for a song: researchers launch whale research project

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