Acoustic Recording Tags

Whale deaths caused by entanglement in commercial fishing gear and ship strike are serious problems for endangered whale species. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, NOAA is required to reduce mortality from these impacts. Reducing mortality requires an understanding of how whales use the water column relative to these human activities. Researchers use state-of-the-art multi-sensor, synchronous motion, acoustic recording tags (DTAGs) and newly designed data visualization software (GeoZUI4D and TrackPlot) to provide fine scaled data on the underwater behavior of whales to aid in the mitigation of these impacts.

The DTAG is a suction cup attached, synchronous motion, acoustic recording tag developed by the Mark Johnson at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It provides data on body orientation (pitch, role and heading) and depth at a rate of 50 times per second. It also records all sounds made and heard by the tagged animal(s). After attachment, tags are retrieved, data are downloaded and tags are ready for redeployment on additional animals.

The project is a collaboration among NOAA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of New Hampshire, Duke University, the University of Hawaii, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Whale Center of New England. Financial support was provided by the National Marine Sanctuary Program and NOAA Fisheries Northeast Regional Office.

Humpback whale with DTAG on its back.
Humpback whale with DTAG on its back.

Tagging Boat


DTAG is attached to the whale by means of suction cups. It is placed there from an inflatable boat using a 45 foot carbon fiber pole.

GeoZUI4D - GeoZUI4D is a software application developed at the University of New Hampshire's Advanced Visualization Laboratory for interacting with time-varying geospatial data. When combined with data derived from the DTAG, it allows the creation of a virtual whale that moves in the exact manner of the tagged whales. In addition, GeoZui4D allows the incorporation of other geospatial data, such as ship movements taken from radar or the U. S. Coast Guard's Universal Shipborne Automatic Identification System (AIS) for ships >300 gross tons. A feature of the software developed for this project is the ability to provide constant distance readouts from the tagged whale to any vessel in the data field.

Using GeoZUI4D we can view the underwater behavior of tagged whales (body motion, depth and sound data from the DTAG) with vessel movements taken from RADAR and AIS, in real time. In this way we can begin documenting the reaction of whales relative to the movement of vessels and the sounds whales are hearing.

GeoZui4D can also join humpback whale dive tracks and behavior with data on bottom topography to view and understand whale behavior relative to threats form fishing gear in the water column. For example, we have shown humpback whales dive directly to the bottom, turn on their side, and forage in contact with the seabed. These data and visualization of behavior have been instrumental in formulating plans to reduce the threat of whale entanglement.

Credit: Colin Ware, UNH.

TrackPlot - TrackPlot is custom software developed for the project by Colin Ware at UNH's Advanced Visualization Laboratory. The software provides 3D visualizations of whale data for understanding whale behavior. Track plot is used when a static image can provide better data visualization than the dynamic real-time, visualizations provided by GeoZUI4D.

TrackPlot showing several hours of humpback foraging data in 3D. Ribbon shows the track of the animals. Yellow ribbon sections indicate side rolls. Red and blue polygons depict fluke strokes.

  • Wiley, David N., Ware, Colin, Barton, Kira L., Shorter, Kenneth A., Johnson, Mark P; Arsenault, Roland, Moller, Just C, Weinrich, Mason. 2005. Underwater behavior of humpback whales in a western North Atlantic foraging area. 2005. Presentation at the 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, San Diego, CA, December 12-16, 2005.
  • Arsenault, Roland, Wiley, David N., Ware, Colin, Barton, Kira, Shorter, Kenneth A., Johnson, Mark P., Moller, Just C., Plumlee, Matthew, and Sardi, Katherine. 2005. GeoZui4D: A new method for viewing multisensor tag-derived data to investigate the underwater behavior of marine mammals. Presentation at the 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, San Diego, CA, December 12-16, 2005
  • Stimpert, A.K., Wiley, D.N., Shorter, K.A., Barton, K.L., Johnson, M.P., Ware, C., Arsenault, R., Au, W.W.L. submitted. Linking sound production and dive behavior in feeding humpback whales. 151st Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Providence, RI, June 5-9, 2006. [upcoming meeting]
  • Stimpert, A.K.; Wiley, D.N.; Shorter, K.A.; Barton, K.L.; Johnson, M.P.; Ware, C.; Arsenault, R.; Lammers, M.O.; Au, W.W.L. 2005. A novel sound recorded in association with bottom feeding in humpback whales. Presentation at the 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, San Diego, CA, December 12-16, 2005. Bill Watkins Memorial Session in Acoustics.
  • Stimpert, A.K., Wiley, D.N, Barton, K., Shorter, K., Johnson, M., Lammers, M., Au, W.W.L. 2005. Sound production patterns from humpback whales in a high latitude foraging area. Presentation at the 150th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America/NOISE-CON, Minneapolis, MN, October 17-21, 2005. [**First Prize for Best Student Paper in Animal Bioacoustics]
  • Stimpert, A.K., Wiley, D.N., Shorter, K.A., Barton, K.L., Johnson, M.P., Ware, C., Arsenault, R., Au, W.W.L. 2006. Deciphering whale acoustics, or, the differences between humpbacks and toilet plungers. 31st Annual Albert L. Tester Memorial Symposium, Honolulu, HI, March 8-10, 2006. [**Best Paper Award]

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