Rules have been created for shipping in the known Right whale habitat, but scientists are concerned that the whales may be moving into areas where there are no mitigation measures and ship strikes are more likely

Rules have been created to protect whales from shipping in the known Right whale habitat, but scientists are concerned that the whales may be moving into areas where there are no mitigation measures and ship strikes are more likely.
Photo Credit: Kara Mahoney Robinson/New England Aquarium)

Where have the whales gone, and why?

Researchers tracking the Atlantic Right whale have been somewhat concerned that the whales are not showing up in their usual summer feeding grounds in and around the northeastern US and eastern Canada.

They are now using sophisticated technology to try to find the whales in a project called WHaLE (Whales Habitat Listening Experiment).

Kimberley Davies (PhD) is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie University, Halifax, and co-manager of  the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR) WHaLE project.

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Kimberley Davies (PhD) is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie University, Halifax,
Kimberley Davies (PhD) is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie University, Halifax, © supplied

The technology the project uses is called a ‘glider’. It’s an autonomous vehicle that travels on a programmed path through the ocean picking up and identifying whale calls. The torpedo like devices can go to a depth of 200 metres, and detect whale calls up to 100 kilometres away.

It can differentiate the calls of various species, and every 48 hours it surfaces to transmit its information back to the lab via satellite.

The huge advantage of the gliders is that costs are drastically reduced as scientists and boats are no longer needed to be out on the ocean for days or weeks at a time to search for and monitor whales.

Using battery power, the gliders  can travel for up to four months on their own before recovery.

The glider autonomous vehicle looks like a torpedo, it travels underwater collecting and analyzing whale calls and then surfaces every 48 hours to transmit data via satellite to the researchers on land.
The glider autonomous vehicle looks like a torpedo. It travels underwater collecting and analyzing whale calls and then surfaces every 48 hours to transmit data via satellite to the researchers on land. © Ocean Tracking Network

Climate change? Maybe, maybe not.

Normally a large number of the whales are found off the south coast of Nova Scotia at this time of year, but lately they seem to be going elsewhere.

Davies says the tracking programme has found more of them in the Gulf of St Lawrence than their usual area in the Roseway Basin around southern Nova Scotia.  Another researcher says many more than usual have also been spotted in the Bay of Fundy this year.

Two ’gliders’ have been deployed to travel in the Gulf of St Lawrence and on the Scotian shelf off the coast of Nova Scotia. The coloured dots represent recording of different species of whale calls. This year so far, more Right whales (red dots) have been heard in the Gulf, than their usual summer location off Nova Scotia
Two ’gliders’ have been deployed to travel in the Gulf of St Lawrence and on the Scotian shelf off the coast of Nova Scotia. The coloured dots represent recording of different species of whale calls. This year so far, more Right whales (red dots) have been heard in the Gulf, than their usual summer location off Nova Scotia © MEOPAR-Dalhousie University-Ocean tracking Network

Davies says that while this may seem unusual, it is likely due to fluctuations in amounts and locations of the whale’s food source, tiny zooplankton.  She also says that not enough is known of Right whale habits to say that changes in food supply or this ‘change’ in location are due to climate change. She notes there is a large natural variation, and studies have not been going on long enough to establish patterns.

At least two whales have died in September off the coast of Maine after becoming entangled in fishing gear, a third was saved by a special team.
At least two whales have died in September off the coast of Maine after becoming entangled in fishing gear, a third was saved by a special team. More protection for the species depends on knowing more about their habits and travels. The project hopes to add to that knowledge © International Fund for Animal Welfare

By tracking where the whales are and when, she says the multi-year project is helping to add data to scientific knowledge of the whales, and that should also help in developing policies beneficial to the species survival.

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