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Science The great whale watch: How a data blitz put the plight of endangered animals into sharper relief

Marianna Hagbloom of the New England Aquarium observes a right whale during a research trip in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer.

Whale, Particle and Fish Lab, Dalhousie University

When he saw the flight track of the U.S. survey plane over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Hansen Johnson knew the plan was working.

Watching on his computer he could see that the plane had veered off from its search pattern of evenly spaced parallel lines into a spaghetti-like tangle of loops and tight circles.

“That’s when I started getting excited,” said Mr. Johnson, a PhD student in marine bioacoustics at Dalhousie University. “I knew that meant that they were photographing right whales.”

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That was July 31 as Mr. Johnson and his colleagues were on a two-day data gathering blitz to find out what North Atlantic right whales were doing in areas they have only recently been spotted in significant numbers.

All told, Canadian and U.S. expert observers identified about 30 to 40 whales from plane and survey boat, while two autonomous gliders were underwater recording whale calls. Overhead, a passing satellite simultaneously measured ocean conditions. Finally, and most crucially, were the 32 sonobuoys – sensitive underwater microphones that are designed to hunt for submarines – that the Canadian air force deployed in the same location from a C-140 maritime patrol aircraft. Together, the academic, government and military contributions added up to an unprecedented snapshot of right-whale activity across 1,500 square kilometres of open ocean.

Waiting for news of the results “was like holding my breath for eight hours,” said Mr. Johnson, who remained in Halifax to play a co-ordinating role during the joint exercise.

Hansen Johnson.

Whale, Particle and Fish Lab, Dalhousie University

The point of all this effort goes beyond scientific curiosity.

North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered of all marine mammals, numbering fewer than 500 individuals. They are well known in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, where protocols to protect them from collisions with passing ships have been in place for years. More recently, right whales have been observed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where it’s thought they have been driven in pursuit of a shifting food supply.

The new habitat comes with new risks. After a period of steady recovery in the early 2000s, right-whale population numbers are in decline once again. Last year marked a devastating turning point, when a dozen dead right whales turned up all around the gulf – many of them victims of collisions, others more likely killed by entanglement in fishing gear. As a result, the Canadian government imposed an emergency response to try to stem the carnage. The new measures, which include slowing down shipping traffic and curtailing crab fishing across a swath of the New Brunswick coast where the whales are now found, continue to be enforced.

So far this year, no right-whale deaths have been reported. But even with emergency measures in place, that’s been something of a lucky break, said Mr. Johnson, who last month witnessed a right whale narrowly escape with its life as it struggled to disentangle itself from fishing gear over a two-hour period.

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“It is absolutely gut-wrenching to see an animal in distress like that,” he said.

And as the community comes to grips with how to manage whales in the gulf, a longer-term question is coming into focus: How can right whales and humans co-exist in one of the busiest coastal waterways on the planet?

The answer, scientists say, hinges on better data, innovative technology and hand-in-glove co-operation between researchers, governments and industry to ensure that everyone knows what they need to know to avoid a repeat of last year.

“No one wants to come home with a dead whale on their bow,” said Christopher Taggart, an oceanographer who leads Dalhousie’s Whale, Particle and Fish Lab. “The big problem is how can you get the information to the people who can use it.”

Whale’s wail

What does a right whale sound like? Listen to some of the audio from the researchers' study.

URBAN WHALES

While many types of whales face serious threats, the ecology and behavior of right whales seem to make them uniquely vulnerable to human activity at sea.

Known as “the urban whales,” they are rarely found in deep ocean water, preferring instead to hug the continental shelf of eastern North America where they migrate up the coast every year to New England and the Maritimes. Lacking a pronounced dorsal fin, they have a low profile at the surface that increases their likelihood of being struck by ships.

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More than most whale species, they are also strongly dependent on a single food source. These are the small crustaceans known as copepods, vast numbers of which go dormant in the later part of the year and sit suspended in frigid, salty water near the sea floor like tiny blisters of pure fat.

In previous years, right whales have congregated into two Canadian locations, one in the Bay of Fundy and another south of Nova Scotia called the Roseway Basin. Starting in the early 2000s, shipping practices were altered in an effort to reduce whale strikes in these areas.

But more recently, scientists have found that the copepods are moving, likely in response to altered ocean conditions that are related to climate change. This has presented right whales with a serious survival challenge.

“They show up and the restaurant is closed,” Dr. Taggart said.

The Dalhousie team has been at the forefront of trying to understand where the whales are going in search of food. Increasingly, the evidence has led them to a finger-like depression between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island called the Orpheline Trough. There, conditions are nearly identical to the best right-whale habitat in the Gulf of Maine, including the presence of copepods. Whether right whales have always used the trough is not known. What is clear is that it has now become crucial to their survival.

“Within a single year we’ve documented more than one-quarter of the population using that area,” said Kim Davies, a research associate at Dalhousie who has been studying the whales’ shifting habits.

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Over the past three years, Dr. Davies has championed the use of underwater gliders to identify where right whales are located by picking up their distinctive whoops, or “up calls” that they use to signal each other. The technology, first developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, has proved ideal for Canadian waters where fog and poor weather conditions often interfere with efforts to spot whales from the surface or the air.

The gliders are also far cheaper than aerial flights, but the information they can provide is limited. For example, it’s not entirely clear from what distance they can pick up whale sounds. It was researchers’ desire to get more out of the technology and use it to help prevent whale deaths in a new setting that led to this past summer’s data blitz.

Dalhousie scientist Kim Davies and master's student Meg Carr sample the tiny crustaceans called copepods, which are a food source for right whales.

Whale, Particle and Fish Lab, Dalhousie University

BONA FIDE CRISIS

The idea was cooked up at a campus pub night last fall where Mr. Johnson found himself discussing the right-whale challenge with fellow PhD student Dugald Thomson, a major with Defense Research and Development Canada – the research arm of the Canadian forces – and a specialist in marine acoustics.

Together they realized that the sonobuoys the military uses to listen for submarines could be used to calibrate the gliders’ performance if both methods were used on the same whales at the same time. As the conservation continued over the following months, the idea became more ambitious. Perhaps all the ways of recording whales, both visually and acoustically, could be attempted at the same time in a co-ordinated way so that scientists could compare their observations and get more out of the data.

With Major Thomson’s help, the military was on board. The plight of the right whale, he said, is “a bona fide crisis” of the type that the department of national defense would respond to.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada also joined the project as did other groups already involved in whale surveys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Canadian Whale Institute, a not-for-profit organization based in New Brunswick.

By the time the operation was under way, it was the largest and most multilayered data-gathering effort ever attempted with right whales.

Two months later Mr. Johnson is still collating all the data, including the sonobuoy recordings that have only this week been declassified and made available to researchers at Dalhousie. While the first attempt on July 30 was hampered by poor weather, the number of whales seen during the second day gave Mr. Johnson and his colleagues plenty to work with.

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“It’s giving us greater context,” Mr. Johnson said. “We can start to put together a picture with these different levels of information that we’ve never had access to before.”

Moira Brown, a long-time right-whale scientist with the New England Aquarium and the Canadian Whale Institute who was not directly involved in the July operation, said the project illustrates why a co-ordinated approach is needed to better understand the behavior of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and enable measures that can allow them to co-exist with shipping and fishing in the long term.

“There’s a huge value in learning about the area where the project was done,” Dr. Brown said. “Now we can perhaps more narrowly tailor the area where measures are in place.”

But Dr. Brown added that the fate of right whales still hangs by a thread. “After four decades, we’re still trying to save this species one whale at a time,” she said.




Where the whales are: A snapshot in time

On July 31, academic researchers teamed up

with partners in government and the military to

simultaneously gather as much data as possible

on right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

ADULT RIGHT WHALE

around 17 metres

bonnet

callosity

blowhole

fluke

baleen

plates

flipper

human

drawn

to scale

White markings on

belly, each unique

Lifespan: often

over 3 decades

A TURN FOR THE WORSE

The need to follow shifting food sources into

less safe areas may account for the recent

decline in right whale numbers.

Median abundance estimates

300

Male

250

Female

200

150

100

1990

‘95

‘00

‘05

‘10

‘15

CASTING A BIG NET

Where sonobuoys were dropped

Where gliders heard whales

Where whales were sighted

Route of survey ship

Path of underwater gliders

Flight path of aircraft

Orpholene

Trough

QUEBEC

NFLD.

QUEBEC

Detail

Gulf

of St.

Lawrence

PEI

N.B.

N.S.

30

0

KM

Chaleur Bay

NEW BRUNSWICK

TWO WAYS TO LISTEN

Sonobuoys are deployed from the air in a grid

that can be used to pinpoint where whale sounds

are coming from. Gliders are launched from

surface ships and can remain at sea for weeks

while transmitting acoustic recordings and data

on ocean conditions via satellite.

Satellite

Sonobuoys are

dropped from

a plane

1

When tail is up the glider

can receive signals from

a satellite or ship to tell

it what to do

Parachute slows

descent and is

released when

the sonobuoy

hits the water

2

About 27

metres deep

Ship

3

Data

can be

collected

both on

descent

and

ascent

At the

surface,

data is

sent to

satellite

or ship

and to

receive

new

instructions

4

5

Seabed

NOT TO SCALE

Remote

glider

A robotic underwater vehicle that

collects acoustic and other data.

Altimeter

is used for

navigation

to avoid

collision

Glider is

modular to

allow sensors

to be added

or removed

Main

computer

and battery

pack

Inflatable bladder

tips tail up when

filled and tips tail

down when

deflated

Battery moves towards

tip. Piston is retracted to

help the glider dive. The

opposite happens to help

it climb to surface.

Propeller is

retractable

A buoy designed to detect

underwater sounds and transmit

them by radio

Sonobuoy

Radiotransmitter (floats

at surface) sends signals

to the plane. The signal

cable pays out

3

The main

suspension deploys

4

5

Compliance housing sinks to a

preset depth where conditions

are optimal for a hydrophone

to pick up whale sounds from

the greatest distance.

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE G L OBE A ND MAI L,

RESEARCH: IVAN SEMENIUK,

SOURCES: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; DALHOUSIE

UNIVERSITY; TELEDYNE; GRAPHIC NEWS; AUVAC; NATIONAL

OCEANOGRAPHY CENTRE; OPEN STREET MAP CONTRIBUTORS;

HIU; WILEY; SONOBUOY TECH SYSTEMS

On July 31, academic researchers teamed up with

partners in government and the military to simultaneously

gather as much data as possible on right whales in the

Gulf of St. Lawrence.

ADULT RIGHT WHALE

around 17 metres

bonnet

callosity

blowhole

baleen

plates

fluke

flipper

Lifespan:

often over

3 decades

human drawn

to scale

White markings

on belly, each unique

A TURN FOR THE WORSE

The need to follow shifting food sources into less safe

areas may account for the recent decline

in right whale numbers.

Median abundance estimates

300

Male

250

Female

200

150

100

1990

‘95

‘00

‘05

‘10

‘15

CASTING A BIG NET

Where sonobuoys were dropped

Route of survey ship

Path of underwater

gliders

Where gliders heard whales

Where whales were sighted

Flight path of aircraft

QUEBEC

NFLD.

Orpholene

Trough

Detail

QUEBEC

PEI

Gulf of

St. Lawrence

N.B.

N.S.

Bonaventure

Miscou

Island

30

0

KM

Chaleur Bay

NEW

BRUNSWICK

TWO WAYS TO LISTEN

Sonobuoys are deployed from the air in a grid that can be

used to pinpoint where whale sounds are coming from.

Gliders are launched from surface ships and can remain at

sea for weeks while transmitting acoustic recordings and

data on ocean conditions via satellite.

Satellite

1

Sonobuoys are

dropped from

a plane

When tail is up the glider

can receive signals from

a satellite or ship to tell

it what to do

2

Parachute slows

descent and is

released when the

sonobuoy hits

the water

About 27

metres

deep

Ship

3

Physio-

chemical

data can

be

collected

both on

descent

and ascent

At the

surface,

data can

be sent to

a satellite

or a ship

and to

receive

updates

on its

mission

4

5

Seabed

NOT TO SCALE

A robotic underwater vehicle that collects

acoustic and other forms of data.

Remote

glider

Altimeter

is used for

navigation

to avoid

collision

Glider is

modular to

allow sensors

to be added

or removed

Main

computer

and battery

pack

Inflatable bladder

tips tail up when

filled and tips tail

down when

deflated

Battery moves towards tip.

Piston is retracted to help the

glider dive. The opposite happens

to help it climb to surface.

Propeller is

retractable

A buoy designed to detect underwater

sounds and transmit them by radio

Sonobuoy

Radiotransmitter (floats

at surface) sends signals

to the plane. The signal

cable pays out

3

The main

suspension deploys

4

5

Compliance housing sinks to a

preset depth where conditions

are optimal for a hydrophone

to pick up whale sounds from

the greatest distance.

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE G L OBE A ND MAI L, RESEARCH: IVAN

SEMENIUK, SOURCES: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; DALHOUSIE

UNIVERSITY; TELEDYNE; GRAPHIC NEWS; AUVAC; NATIONAL

OCEANOGRAPHY CENTRE; OPEN STREET MAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU;

WILEY; SONOBUOY TECH SYSTEMS

On July 31, academic researchers teamed up with partners in government

and the military to simultaneously gather as much data as possible on right whales

in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

ADULT RIGHT WHALE

callosity

around 17 metres

bonnet

blowhole

baleen

plates

fluke

Lifespan:

often over

3 decades

flipper

human drawn

to scale

White markings

on belly, each unique

A TURN FOR THE WORSE

300

Male

The need to follow shifting

food sources into less safe

areas may account for the

recent decline in right

whale numbers.

Median abundance estimates

250

Female

200

150

100

1990

‘95

‘00

‘05

‘10

‘15

Orpholene

Trough

CASTING A BIG NET

Where sonobuoys were dropped

QUEBEC

Where gliders heard whales

Where whales were sighted

Gulf of

St. Lawrence

Route of survey ship

Path of underwater gliders

Newport

Flight path of aircraft

30

0

KM

QUEBEC

NFLD.

Miscou

Island

Bonaventure

Detail

Chaleur Bay

Grand-Anse

PEI

N.B.

N.S.

NEW

BRUNSWICK

TWO WAYS TO LISTEN

Sonobuoys are deployed from the air in a grid that can be used to pinpoint where whale

sounds are coming from. Gliders are launched from surface ships and can remain at sea

for weeks while transmitting acoustic recordings and data on ocean conditions

via satellite.

Satellite

Sonobuoys are

dropped from a plane

1

When tail is up the glider

can receive signals from

a satellite or ship to tell

it what to do

2

Parachute slows descent

and is released when the

sonobuoy hits the water

Ship

About 27

metres

deep

3

4

At the surface again,

the tail tips up to allow

data to be sent to a

satellite or a ship and

to receive updates

on its mission

Physiochemical

data can be

collected both

on descent

and rise

5

NOT TO SCALE

Seabed

A robotic underwater vehicle that

collects acoustic and other forms

of data.

A buoy designed

to detect underwater

sounds and transmit

them by radio

Sonobuoy

Remote

glider

3

Radiotransmitter

(floats at surface)

sends signals to the

plane. The signal cable

pays out

Altimeter

is used for

navigation

to avoid

collision

Main

computer

and battery

pack

Glider is

modular to

allow sensors

to be added

or removed

4

The main

suspension deploys

5

Battery moves

towards tip.

Piston is

retracted to help

the glider dive.

The opposite

happens to help

it climb to surface.

Compliance housing

sinks to a preset

depth where conditions

are optimal for a

hydrophone to pick up

whale sounds from

the greatest distance.

Inflatable bladder

tips tail up when

filled and tips tail

down when

deflated

Propeller is

retractable

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE G L OB E A N D MAIL, RESEARCH: IVAN SEMENIUK, SOURCES: GOVERNMENT

OF CANADA; DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY; TELEDYNE; GRAPHIC NEWS; AUVAC; NATIONAL OCEANOGRAPHY

CENTRE; OPEN STREET MAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; WILEY; SONOBUOY TECH SYSTEMS

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