Harnessing Fiber Optic Cables To Track and Locate Whales!

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Credit: abigail-lynn-unsplash

For the first time ever, researchers have been able to track eight fin whales in near real time as they swam along a stretch of fiber-optic cable line in the Arctic. The breakthrough suggests that fiber-optic cable networks could be harnessed to help prevent whale deaths by ship strikes.

Backbone Of Communication

Fiber-optic cables line the coasts of the continents and criss-cross the oceans, carrying signals that are the backbone of communication in the modern world. While their main job is telecommunications, researchers have been exploring ways to use this giant network to eavesdrop on everything from storms to earthquakes to whales. Now, working with two nearly parallel fiber-optic telecommunications cables off the Norwegian arctic archipelago of Svalbard, researchers have been able to estimate the positions and tracks of eight fin whales along a section of the cable — for five hours.

Transforming Fibre Optics To Hydrophones

The system the researchers used for this work is called Distributed Acoustic Sensing, or DAS. DAS uses an instrument called an interrogator to send laser pulses into a fiber-optic system and records the returning light pulses, essentially turning the cables into a series of hydrophones. Landrø and his colleagues first began to explore the ability of DAS to record underwater vibrations and sounds in the waters off Svalbard in June 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The researchers have built on this early work to expand their ability to identify different whale species and to conduct real time recording from the fiber optic cables in Svalbard. For this latest effort, published in Frontiers of Marine Science, the researchers had access to two, nearly parallel 250 km long fiber-optic cables that extend from Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard, to Ny-Ålesund, a research outpost to the northwest. 

Reduce Ship Strike Risk

Whales are already changing the way they use the Arctic and Antarctic as feeding grounds, with some research showing that fin whales have begun spending time year-round in Arctic regions. That means increased ship traffic in these areas can also increase the likelihood of ship strikes.  The use of the existing fiber-optic cable network and DAS could help reduce this possibility, the researchers said. “The capabilities demonstrated here establish the potential for a near-real-time whale tracking capability that could be applied anywhere in the world where there are whales and fiber-optic cables,” the researchers wrote.

This development comes at a time when NORDUnet, the Nordic Gateway for Research and Innovation and the Nordic NRENs have begun a number of initiatives to investigate and plan the first submarine fiber-optic cable system between Europe, Asia, and North America to secure a shorter route through the Arctic Ocean.

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Source: Maritimeexecutive