A multipronged effort is under way to measure the changes to the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem—including whale populations—to assess the potential impact of clouds drifting below the surface, by-products of the massive oil spill and the dispersants used to break up the slick.
“Night after night, on TV and on Web cams, we see oil spewing from the bottom of the ocean,” says Christopher Clark, head of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.
“You wonder ‘What can we do? What’s the impact of this?’ In the case of marine mammals, we don’t know because we don’t even know what’s there.”
Clark and his team, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will anchor 22 marine autonomous recording units (MARUs) to the sea floor in an arc stretching from Texas to western Florida, along the edge of the continental shelf.
The units will record underwater sounds for three months before they receive a signal to let go of their tethers and pop to the surface for retrieval. After analyzing the data, the team will deliver a report to NOAA and other agencies involved in the oil leak response.
The MARUs will listen for endangered sperm whales and a small population of Bryde’s (BRU-des) whales. They will also pick up sounds of fish and ship traffic.