There is an increasing need to harvest alternative energy, and offshore wind is a valuable potential resource. A prerequisite for development is determining appropriate sites where the impact to natural habitats would be minimal. Prospective sites may be in outer continental shelf waters, where there has been limited or no research performed in the past due to difficulties in reaching these distant locations, as well as associated high costs.

Project Objectives

  • Contribute to informed decisions for offshore renewable energy development
  • Perform consistent aerial surveys to retrieve valuable environmental data where historical survey data has been spatially and temporally inconsistent
  • Advance toward assessing seasonal migration and habitat use in this region
  • Develop aerial survey methodology and techniques

Map of the current survey area.
Transect lines are separated by 7 nautical miles.
Cartography: B. Wikgren

A humpback whale photographed by
observers on June 6, 2013

The survey aircraft, an O-2

Skymaster Cessna




In late 2010 a Request for Interest (RFI) for commercial wind energy development in outer continental shelf waters off Massachusetts was issued. Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) in partnership with the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) awarded an 18-month contract to the New England Aquarium to perform surveys in federal waters south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The surveys will monitor sea turtles, right whales and other large whales in the study area. MassCEC requires a year’s worth of seasonal migratory data to inform the federal offshore leasing process.

In late 2012, the survey contract with MassCEC was amended and renewed, extending the project for another 12 months. Under this new contract the survey area has been geographically expanded to include more transect lines offshore of Rhode Island. Modification to equipment and the automated data collection program have increased the efficiency of survey methodology for the coming year.

Northeast Large Pelagics Survey Collaborative

The Aquarium is collaborating with other prestigious New England research groups in order to fulfill survey objectives, forming the Northeast Large Pelagics Survey Collaborative (NLPSC). The University of Rhode Island, current curators of the right whale sighting database, will be involved in data collection methodology, density and distribution analyses and data quality control. Two experienced aerial observers-photographers on each survey flight are from Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) and the Aquarium. The goal is to perform two aerial surveys per month, with additional surveys in response to biological hotspots or areas of particular interest. The Bioacoustic Research Program (BRP) at Cornell University provides BRP-developed Marine Autonomous Recording Units (called “pop-ups”) deployed in a configuration to detect whales within and around the survey area. Automated data recognition and expert human validation detect vocalizations of blue, fin, right, humpback and minke whales. All five species are known to occur near the survey area and are readily identifiable by their species-specific vocalizations.

Survey Methodology

The aircraft is an O-2 Skymaster Cessna, a military version of the civilian 337. Two observers in the rear seats scan for large whales, while the automated digital SLR camera mounted over optical glass in the belly port of the plane collects vertical photographic data at regular intervals for turtles on the tracklines. Aerial Imaging Solutions (AIS) developed and customized the camera mount system. It enables us to acquire high-quality images that compensate for the plane’s forward motion, while the camera is remotely operated from a laptop. Each geo-referenced image also has details of associated flight parameters such as altitude and speed. The New England Aquarium is proud to be an integral part of this collaborative effort.