Smart Whale Sounds: A first-of-its-kind project off the coast of Cork

19 Mar 2021

Emer Keaveney, marine mammal ecologist with ORCA. Image: Robin Murray/Nomos

A specially designed buoy has been deployed 9km off the coast of Co Cork to gather data from the calls of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

A new project called Smart Whale Sounds was launched this week to examine the impact of ocean noise pollution on Ireland’s marine life in real time.

Led by Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA) Ireland and supported by Rainforest Connection and Huawei Ireland, the first-of-its-kind project will monitor the acoustics of members of the cetacean species (whales, dolphins and porpoises) off the south coast of the island.

A specially designed data-gathering buoy will be used to carry out the research. It is 13 feet long and weighs two tons, and has been under development for months. It was deployed 9km off the coast of Baltimore in Co Cork, where it will remain for the next year.

‘Sound pollution causes as much damage to marine life as overfishing, pollution and climate change’

An underwater microphone attached to buoy will record whale species in real time and train machine learning models to identify their different calls. The goal is to use the generated data to create a marine wildlife detection and classification model, which has the potential to be scaled up for other projects around the world. It could also lead to the development of an early warning system to help ships reduce their speed to minimise the risk ships striking whales.

Huawei Ireland will provide technological support and assistance as part of its Tech4All initiative. Smart Whale Sounds is the first project to be launched in Ireland under the programme, and the first focusing on marine wildlife to be launched globally.

“The Smart Whale Sounds project will see Ireland leading the way in using technology and data to have a greater understanding of marine life and help inform how best to manage potential marine protected areas,” said Tony Yangxu, Huawei Ireland’s CEO.

Rise in ocean noise levels

The south coast was chosen for the project because it is one of the world’s most important habitats for whales, dolphins and porpoises, the research group said. Members of the cetacean species visit the region to forage, rest and reproduce.

Ireland is home to 25 species of resident and migratory cetaceans, which account for 48pc of the country’s mammals and one-third of all cetaceans worldwide.

The project’s lead researcher, Emer Keaveney, is a marine mammal ecologist with ORCA. She said that higher levels of marine traffic – including container ships, speedboats and eco-tour operators – has resulted in a “significant noise pollution issue”.

“Sound pollution causes as much damage to marine life as overfishing, pollution and climate change, and is believed to cause behavioural changes that interfere with the health and survival of the animals,” Keaveney said. “Informed estimates suggest that ocean noise levels are at least 10 times higher today than they were a few decades ago.”

Rainforest Connection CEO Topher White added: “There’s no better way to tap into the subtlety and the essence of ecology than through how nature calls to itself.

“To capture this at scale within our oceans and harness the power of cloud, AI and big-data analysis to gather the ecological insight, is the beginning of an unprecedented era of ambitious scientific discovery and critical conservation work.”

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021