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In the race to curb greenhouse gas emissions, wind power is an appealing source of clean energy, but it may have its own impact on the environment. From WNYC, Fred Mogul reports on the rush to study whale habitat before hundreds of wind turbines rise from the ocean floor off the coast of New York.
JOHN: Morning Star, is that you looking for whales?
FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: Captain Jim Miller pilots his boat, the Morning Star, out onto the Atlantic.
JIM MILLER: Any whales in that direction there, John?
JOHN: Not that I've seen. I'll keep my eye out, though, and let you know.
MOGUL: Fall was turning into winter quickly. Today is super sunny and warm. But as the sand dunes recede and the ocean opens up, whitecaps start to appear. And the surf and my stomach start to churn.
MILLER: A little snottier out here than I thought it would be.
MOGUL: Miller's main job is a public high school math teacher. For much of the summer, he takes out scientific researchers, led by Dr. Howard Rosenbaum of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
HOWARD ROSENBAUM: We have a resurgence of whales here in the New York area. We see humpback whales feeding, fin whales feeding. You have other animals that may be on migration.
MOGUL: We're working our way out to an 80,000-acre triangle of ocean. An enormous Norwegian energy corporation called Equinor has a contract with New York state to build enough wind turbines to power a half-million homes.
ROSENBAUM: Everyone is interested, you know, in the benefits of renewable energy and, you know, what that does for our climate and for society. We also just want to protect the wildlife and these most important habitats.
MOGUL: Rosenbaum hopes the data his crew is gathering on whales will inform everything from the placement of the turbines to the boat speeds of construction and maintenance crews.
ROSENBAUM: When wind farms are constructed, they're going to operate for decades, right? And so we want to get it as close to right as best as we can right now.
MOGUL: After a half an hour or so, with New York City still visible in the background, a crew member spots what she thinks is a humpback whale about 300 yards away. At that distance, it's hard to tell. It looks kind of like an oily black patch of water.
MILLER: I wonder if it's the same one we had the last time since it's so small.
MOGUL: Small for a humpback whale. Even though you only see a 5- to 10-foot-long stretch of shiny black fin above the water, you sense the outline of something much larger. In fact, this juvenile humpback is about as long as a three-story building is tall.
ROSENBAUM: See that little swirling water at the surface? That's where he just was. It's when an animal beats its tail underwater, and it comes up and...
MOGUL: They want to get close to the whale to identify it, at first with photographs for a catalog they keep of more than 100 whales they follow through the area.
ROSENBAUM: Tail, tail - all right. Hang on, guys. I'm going to go down and get the crossbow.
MOGUL: Rosenbaum grabs a crossbow and loads it with an arrow that has a hollow 2-inch tip and a corklike stopper to prevent it from penetrating too deeply. The idea is to collect a core sample of the whale's skin and blubber.
MILLER: Well, there we go, Howard. Nice.
MOGUL: The arrow bobs in the water. A teammate retrieves it in a net. But nope - the angle was no good, and the arrow tip is empty. The whale, by the way, supposedly doesn't mind being shot.
ROSENBAUM: It's kind of like getting bit by a mosquito. Sometimes you feel it. Sometimes you don't.
MOGUL: Just then, a second humpback comes into range, an adult that's much larger. And Rosenbaum gets into position with his crossbow.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That was a good hit.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Cross your fingers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, it's all good.
ROSENBAUM: Yeah. Nice.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Textbook.
MOGUL: They scoop the floating arrow out of the water, and this one has a little sliver of whale flesh inside.
ROSENBAUM: With this, we can tell the sex of the animal. We'll do some population comparisons to neighboring populations. We get a lot of valuable information from this one sample.
MOGUL: With the whale blubber in hand, it's time to head south to our real destination, the site of Equinor's future Empire Wind farm. It takes another hour and a half to get there. And by there, I mean a large, lonely yellow buoy floating on a vast expanse of ocean.
ROSENBAUM: We're actually looking at our near-real-time acoustic monitoring buoy.
MOGUL: Despite feeling empty, this is a busy area for cargo ships and fishing trawlers. And down below, there's a teeming ecosystem with at least one humpback whale we saw and a fin whale we never saw but was picked up by the acoustic monitoring buoy. Rosenbaum hopes these data points will guide where Equinor plants its towering forest of wind turbines and will also help environmental authorities keep the multinational energy company accountable.
ROSENBAUM: So if their permit says they have to do X, Y or Z activities and they have to stop and - if there are certain whales detected, this might alert them to the fact that there are whales present.
MOGUL: We head back to shore, and the sun begins to set. Rosenbaum and I talk about the big cement footings that will hold up the wind turbines.
ROSENBAUM: Does it create, you know, better foraging areas for whales? Does it disturb an area that whales might use? I mean, I think these are all questions that, you know, are going to be borne out in the years to come.
MOGUL: Apparently, no one really knows what the effects on whales will be from all the cement, steel and electrical current soon to arrive in the Atlantic. But whatever the risk is, he thinks it's worth taking, compared to the greater risk faced by climate change.
For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York.
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