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Thursday, 11 October, 2001, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
On the trail of the whale
Song of the Whale: Ifaw
Song of the Whale: Ifaw's research flagship (Image Ifaw)
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Moored beside a fleet of shiny yachts in the opulent surroundings of St Katherine's Dock, London, UK, the Song of the Whale could be just another plaything of the rich and famous.

In fact, she once was. But now, the kitchen where the chef cooked cordon bleu meals has been ripped out and replaced with a bay of hi-tech computers.

Governments and conservation groups need to really start pushing for better measures to protect porpoises

Anna Moscrop, Ifaw
The bathroom has become a makeshift tool shed, and space has been found to squeeze in tiny cabins for the scientists among the crew.

For the 14-metre-long (46 feet) yacht now has a more worthy purpose. She roams the oceans on the trail of whales, carrying out vital research.

Out on deck, the Song of the Whale's skipper, Richard McLanaghan, points to the crow's nest on the main mast. "We use this in very calm weather to look out for sperm whales and right whales," he says.

Song of the Whale
Bird's eye view for spotting whales
At 11.5 m (37.7 ft) high, it is a precarious perch for scientific surveys. Fortunately there is another observation platform, 3.5 m (11.5 ft) above the water, that can be used to spot the likes of harbour porpoises which venture closer to the boat.

During daylight hours, in good weather, two people are on permanent duty looking out for cetaceans from this vantage point. But even when the crew is asleep, the boat is still carrying out research.

Hydrophones - special underwater microphones attached to cables - are towed behind the boat to literally eavesdrop on whales and dolphins, 24 hours a day. The skipper picks up one of the coils of coloured rope strewn across the deck.

Song of Whale
Underwater microphones towed behind the boat eavesdrop on whales
"These nests of cables you see are hydrophone arrays," he says. "Whenever we're at sea, we're running acoustic surveys."

The blue medium-frequency ones detect species such as sperm whales and dolphins, which make sounds within our range of hearing.

The orange high-frequency devices contain specialised electronics capable of detecting the likes of harbour porpoises which vocalise at frequencies way beyond our hearing range.

Down in the hold, he plays some of the sounds of whales recorded on the research ship's computers during their travels.

Richard McLanaghan and Anna Moscrop
Richard McLanaghan and Anna Moscrop
Right whales make a moaning noise, and sometimes a strange guttural clicking sound. Their smaller cousins, harbour porpoises, make a high-pitched squeak, or click, like a nail scrapping against glass.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) has been pioneering the acoustic detection of whales for some years now. For the first time next year, in collaboration with Cornell University in the United States, they will place sound detectors on a buoy in the Bay of Maine.

The aim is to solve one of the enduring mysteries of the right whale. These giants of the deep, now critically endangered, calve in the waters off Florida.

Song of the Whale
Temporary home: St Katherine's dock
But where they go for the rest of the year is still unknown. Real-time acoustic information could provide important clues to the whales' migratory route and so help to protect them. But time is short. There are only about 300 left.

Anna Moscrop is lead researcher on the Song of the Whale. She says acoustic techniques are now being piloted, in addition to surveys by aircraft, to find out more about this very endangered whale.

"They are very impacted by human threats, from shipping and from getting entangled in fishing gear," she says.

"To better protect them we really need to be able to know where they are."

Song of the Whale
The boat will stay in London for a month
It is not only the giant denizens of the deep that require protection. Harbour porpoises, one of the world's smallest cetaceans, are also in danger. It is estimated that many thousands die each year in European waters after becoming entangled in fishing nets.

The Song of the Whale crew sailed the busy fishing ground of the Baltic Sea for the first time this summer listening for signs of harbour porpoises. In Polish waters - the area they surveyed - they only heard two.

"From our preliminary results, it actually looks pretty dire for porpoises in the Baltic," says Anna Moscrop.

"Governments and conservation groups need to really start pushing for better measures to protect porpoises from entanglement in fishing gear and pollution and the other things that threaten them."

The Song of the Whale crew is now analysing the initial results from the survey.

Click here to see the preliminary results.

With European fishing legislation under review, the information could prove vital.

Song of the Whale
Space for 6-8, just about
The Song of the Whale already has 13 years and 402,000 kilometres (250,000 miles) of sailing under her belt.

She will spend October at St Katherine's Dock before setting sail on another trip.

With as many as eight people on board for weeks at a time, plus food, communications gear and scientific equipment, it can get cramped. Which is why Ifaw is trying to raise funds to build a bigger research vessel.

The hull of the new ship is already taking shape at a dockyard in the Cornish port of Falmouth.

Ifaw hopes she will one day replace the Song of the Whale as its flagship for whale research.

Click here to return to story
Skipper Richard McLanaghan
takes a tour around the Song of the Whale
Chief researcher Anna Moscrop
talks about Ifaw's whale research programme
Porpoise contact
Click to hear how it sounds
Right whale contact
Click to hear how it sounds
See also:

28 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Shipping threat to endangered whale
27 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Right whales face extinction
08 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Call to cut porpoise deaths
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