Case Study: Underwater Noise and Whales 

Case Study -Underwater Noise and Whales

Sound is a critical sensory cue for many marine animals, including whales and increasing levels of anthropogenic noise in the world’s oceans is a known stressor to marine life. Marine animals such as whales use sound to communicate, navigate and detect predators and prey.

Woodside continues to focus on managing our underwater noise emissions to minimise any impacts to marine mammals in areas in which we operate. In the last year we have continued to harness emerging and innovative technology to improve our knowledge and understanding of whales (their timing, movement and behaviour), explore novel whale detection methods, and engage large project-based offshore workforces in awareness and marine fauna observer programs with visual whale sightings used to support the implementation of whale management mitigation strategies.

Technology to detect and track whales

With rapid technological and data processing advances, technology and innovation is an important component of Woodside’s science programs and partnerships to understand and manage underwater noise and potential impacts to marine mammals. Activities in 2023 included support for industry collaborative projects and knowledge sharing via the Australian Energy Producer (AEP) and IGOP Joint Industry Programme on Sound and Marine Life.

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Advanced seabed acoustic receivers

Deepwater, multi-directional acoustic receivers, in partnership with JASCO Applied Sciences, have been deployed on the seabed at Scott Reef and near Ningaloo Reef to allow for continuous passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) of whale vocalisations. This is part of ongoing baseline studies by the Browse Joint Venture partners to understand and confirm whale species presence, timing and movement within and in proximity to the Scott Reef remote reef system to inform facility design and construction planning.

Autonomous systems supporting passive acoustic towed arrays

Field trials to test the viability of rapidly emerging autonomous passive acoustic monitoring platforms for real/near-time whale detection technologies were carried out in partnership with industry peers, JASCO Applied Sciences, Blue Ocean MTS and Ocius Technology. A short sea trial held off Western Australia in 2023 demonstrated successful data acquisition, infield data processing and near-real time whale detection reporting and data display using autonomous glider and uncrewed surface vessel platforms with towed passive acoustic arrays.

Distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) applied to whale detection– a proof of concept case study for the North West Shelf, Western Australia

Distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), a type of distributed fibre optic sensing, is a technique for taking spatially resolved strain-rate measurements from points along a fibre-optic cable in real time. Several recently published case studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of DAS deployed on un-lit fibre-optic telecommunication infrastructure (dark fibres) for broad-band monitoring of acoustic energy generated by a variety of sources including the vocalisation of baleen whales.

In a collaboration with Curtin University, Woodside are conducting a proof-of-concept trial to verify the suitability of repurposing fibre-optic cables (part of the existing subsea infrastructure supporting production facilities on the North West Shelf (NWS)), offshore Western Australian waters for detection of threatened and migratory whale species, including the biannual migration of pygmy blue whales between Australian and Indonesian waters. DAS data collection took place from a pre-existing submarine cable between two fixed platforms on the NWS, situated roughly 50 km apart. These data will be used to identify and track whale species from recorded vocalisations. The main objective is to demonstrate that data of this nature can detect vocalising baleen whales leading to broader-scale application of DAS for whale surveillance and detection that may be used to support adaptive management of offshore activities that may pose a risk to whales.

Satellite tags for whale tracking

We continue to improve the understanding of the movement and behaviour of pygmy blue whales through the offshore waters of northwest Australia utilising satellite tags through the partnership program with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the Centre for Whale Research (CWR) .

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A total of 13 new pygmy blue whale tagging tracks were recorded over 2021-2023 adding to the 31 previously recorded satellite tag tracks. To track the movement and behaviour of pygmy blue whales migrating through the offshore waters of Western Australia two types of satellite tags were used. The fastloc GPS tag tracked the long distance migratory journeys and pathways of northbound whales. The pop-up satellite archival tags (PSATs), equipped with accelerometers, provided 3D dive profiles from which migratory swimming, exploratory dives, foraging and lunge feeding behaviours were identified. Combining both data streams allowed for the tracking of the horizontal and vertical movement behaviour in space and time.

All tagging was conducted with the relevant animal ethics permitting and no whale was injured as a result of the tags.

Drone deployment of satellite tags

Improving the attachment methods for the whale satellite tag deployment is an area of interest and improvement identified by our research partners. Utilising technology to provide safer, less intrusive and longer tag deployment duration is being addressed via a research and development project supported by Woodside. The Centre for Whale Research (CWR) are exploring the feasibility of a drone tag deployment method. CWR have designed several satellite tag holders (3D printed) and a support frame attachment to conduct drone trials with dummy tags. The plan is to have a tested system in place to support field-based D-tag deployment on pygmy blue whales in 2024.

High-resolution biologging tags to unlock knowledge on whale vocalisations, environmental context and behaviours

Linking the knowledge and environmental context of pygmy blue whale movement, behaviours and vocalisations is an area of research that is being pursued by a PhD candidate at the Centre for Marine Science and Technology, Curtin University. Woodside recognised the value of this research for understanding the context of vocalisations recorded using passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) and have provided support for high resolution biologging tags to be deployed on pygmy blue whales feeding with in the marine environment of the Perth Canyon in 2024.