Beaked whales are among the least-known mammals in the world, mostly because they spend the majority of their time thousands of feet below the water’s surface.
In November 2020, a team of scientists, co-led by Jay Barlow, captured photographs, video recordings and the sounds of what is believed to be an entirely new beaked whale species north of Mexico’s San Benito Islands, a discovery Barlow described as “sending chills up my spine.”
This breakthrough—finding a huge mammal species previously unknown to science—is just one of Barlow’s many accomplishments during nearly 40 years of service with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Jay has been one of the most influential scientists in the field of marine mammal and passive acoustics research, both within NOAA and the broader scientific community,” said NOAA research biologist Jeffrey Moore. “His work has saved countless lives of whales and dolphins, and helped lead to sustainable management of many marine mammal populations in the United States and elsewhere.”
Barlow’s work primarily focuses on assessing and monitoring marine mammals and ensuring their well-being, in part by examining the negative impacts of human activity.
For example, Barlow has worked with the Navy to estimate the number of marine mammals that could be affected by at-sea training and ordnance testing activities. He also has worked with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to plan new construction of energy resources in a way that will least affect surrounding marine life.
Over the years, Barlow has employed many state-of-the-art survey methods to monitor and assess marine mammal populations. He also has led NOAA and the broader research community in developing technology to survey marine mammal populations, particularly using technology that listens to the sounds of the mammals. He even developed and built these devices in his home garage.
“He’s designed them himself, built them himself and seen those devices through to implementation,” said Lisa Ballance, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. “He’s also been very good at designing new analytical methods for using the data that those passive acoustic devices collected. That’s a hugely significant contribution.”
Acoustic technology not only can help measure the size of a marine mammal population, but the unique recorded sounds also can identify a new species, as was the case with the recent beaked whale discovery. Using this technology, Barlow will soon publish the first estimate of the number of beaked whales in a survey area of one million square kilometers stretching from the Mexican to the Canadian border.
Barlow also was instrumental in placing “pingers” on fishing nets in California in the 1990s. These are small devices on massive nets that make noise and cause marine mammals to swim away, thereby not becoming part of the net bycatch. The pingers led to drastic reductions in whale and dolphin deaths when they were implemented off the coast of California two decades ago.
“Jay has saved the lives of tens of thousands of marine mammals by being innovative, creative and collaborative,” said David Weller, a NOAA division chief. “He has done his job as a scientist to help follow the Marine Mammal Protection Act by regulating and maintaining populations at a healthy level, but at the same time allowing fisheries and fishermen to continue with their livelihood.”
Barlow’s work, including his mentorship of countless scientists and his more than 200 publications, has had a huge impact on the entire field of marine mammal research.
“Jay has been very devoted to making sure that we approach conservation issues with the best possible science and quantitative information we have,” said Andrew J. Read, director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. “He brought a level of quantitative rigor to our entire field and set a standard for how things should be done.”
Marine mammal research continues to grow in importance, Ballance said, making Barlow’s expertise all the more crucial.
“In the last decade or two, we have increasingly seen that the oceans are impacted by a wide variety of human activities like fishing, oil and gas exploration and defense,” she said. “So the big challenge is using the ocean in a sustainable way so that all the parts remain healthy, and therefore all of the various entities that need the ocean can continue to thrive.”
Barlow said it is a “fundamental government role to protect marine mammals” while balancing that requirement with the needs of the fishing industry and other economic activities.”
“I have the best job in the world,” Barlow said. “It lets me go out to sea for a month or two every year. It allows me to tinker with new technology in my garage to my heart’s content. And it has allowed me to solve real world problems.”