How can trombones help keep whales safe at sea? With a little MIT ingenuity.
Lines attached to conventional fishing buoys can snag a whale's pectoral fin, tail fluke or mouth, leading to injury or death. MIT Sea Grant's Cliff Goudey was sure there had to be a simple way to prevent such entanglements. "I was trying to come up with something having the right shape so I could test some ideas," he said. "I played the trumpet when I was in high school and realized that the shape of a brass instrument bell was what I was looking for, and a trombone would provide the ideal size."
He bought two trombone replacement bells--tenor and alto shapes were good candidates--and he used them as molds, creating tapered, flexible stems out of polyurethane rubber that attach to the bottom of conventional foam buoys. By providing the long gradual transition from the thin, flexible buoy line to the wider, rigid buoy, the new Whale-Free Buoys have a remarkable ability to be shed by objects that would snag an ordinary buoy. The invention was awarded a U.S. patent.
The innovative buoy and the results of its at-sea evaluations were presented to the organization charged with protecting the northern right whale--the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. This group identifies and mandates gear modifications to reduce the risks of entanglement for this endangered whale.
According to Goudey, the new buoy offers advantages over the currently required weak links ("breakaways") in the buoy lines because it releases under much less load, and the buoy is retained. "The buoy resists being snagged on keels, rudders, and tow lines--frequent events that often cause the loss of lobstermen's gear," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 19, 2004 (download PDF).